CLAIMS that golden eagles have been “disappearing” in the Highlands has sparked a war of words between a bird charity and an estates group on the eve of grouse-shooting season.
RSPB Scotland is appealing for information after the signal from a satellite-tagged young golden eagle stopped in the Monadhliath mountains south of Inverness on July 2.
The charity claims the two-year-old female bird, named Brodie, is the eighth satellite-tagged member of the rare species to stop transmitting in the range in the past five years.
The Scottish Government has ordered a review of satellite-tracking data after the “disturbing” reports.
A senior RSPB inspector blames “human interference” but the Scottish Moorland Group (SMG), part of Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners in the area, accused the charity of trying to generate anti-shooting publicity on the eve of the Glorious Twelfth.
Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, said the eight birds “have all disappeared in an area where driven grouse moor management dominates the landscape”.
He added: “Given the reliability of the transmitters, the chance of so many birds disappearing over such a short timescale without some kind of human interference is so small as to be negligible.
“The pattern we see here is consistent with the birds having been killed and the transmitters destroyed.”
SMG director Tim Baynes said: “Our organisation is an enthusiastic member of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) and our members are committed to golden eagle conservation across Scotland.
“There is no clear evidence of the golden eagles having even died in the Monadhliath area, let alone having been ‘persecuted’ on grouse moors as RSPB is alleging.
“It is now over a month since the disappearance of this latest eagle and it would have been in everyone’s interests if the matter had been raised immediately.
“There are other explanations for satellite tags stopping working and the failure of RSPB to involve land managers in trying to establish the facts is disappointing.
“There is a clearly-established process within the PAW partnership - which includes the police - for dealing with instances of disappearing satellite-tagged birds.
“Where there is not a police investigation, as in these cases, contact should be made with local land managers who are often in the best position to help with information.
“Regrettably, RSPB has not done this and it is not the first time. RSPB would appear to be more interested in generating anti-shooting publicity on the eve of the grouse-shooting season.”
The RSPB said this was an “almost laughable state of denial”, which was strongly refuted by the SMG.
Holyrood Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “The latest reports of satellite-tagged golden eagles disappearing on or near grouse moors are very disturbing and disappointing.
“That is why I have instructed officials to analyse the evidence from around 90 surviving and missing satellite-tagged eagles to discover if there is a pattern of suspicious activity.
“Grouse moor management does help species such as curlew and golden plover as well as generating much-needed rural employment and income, but this cannot be at any price.
“The public rightly expects all businesses in Scotland to obey the law. Let me be clear: grouse shooting is no exception.
“As previously stated, the Scottish Government is prepared to introduce further regulation of shooting businesses if necessary.
“It will be unfortunate if the activities of a few bring further regulation on the whole sector, but that is the risk those who defy the law and defy public opinion are running.”
Anyone with information on the missing birds is asked to contact the police or RSPB.