Mystery deepens over the suspicious disappearance of Fred the young Golden Eagle

A young golden eagle is thought to have been killed over the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh and its body dumped in the North Sea.

A young Golden Eagle named Fred raised last year in the only successful eyrie in the Scottish borders, has mysteriously disappeared after the satellite tag fitted to the eaglet before it fledged suddenly went off line in the Pentlands Hill just 7 miles from Edinburgh. The situation has brought condemnation from Chris Packham the RSPB, and Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary

Fred’s satellite tag stopped transmissions data on January 21, only to resume once more three days later when its GPS location was shown to be in the North Sea, ten miles off St Andrews, Fife.

Fred was being tracked with GPS. It stopped transmitting in the North Sea
Fred was being tracked with GPS. It stopped transmitting in the North Sea

Chris Packham said he was outraged by the loss and it cast doubt on a planned reintroduction of the species to the south of Scotland this year. “Once again, we have the suspicious disappearance of a satellite-tagged golden eagle in an area managed for driven grouse shooting,” he said.

“What’s truly shocking about this case is that it didn’t take place in a remote Highland glen miles from anywhere, but it happened within a stone’s throw of Edinburgh, right under the noses of the Scottish government.”
Roseanna Cunningham, the environment secretary, said she was horrified and warned it could have repercussions for shooting estates. “To those estates who are continuing with practices which are clearly unacceptable, please stop it because if you don’t stop it, you’re actually going to make things worse for those estates who do operate sensibly and within the law,” she said.

Last year a report commissioned by the Scottish government showed that 41 of 131 satellite-tagged golden eagles had disappeared, presumed dead, in suspicious circumstances in Scotland, predominantly on or near driven grouse moors. In response Ms Cunningham ordered a review of grouse moor management practices with a view to introducing a licensing scheme.

Data from Fred’s tag showed it stayed close to its nest for several months after fledging, before making its first exploratory flight outside its parents’ territory in mid-January. It spent a few days “woodland hopping” around the northern edge of the Pentlands, providing researchers with accurate and frequent GPS locations via the tag. On January 20 Fred roosted by a grouse moor near Balerno. The tag recorded his position until the following morning. When the next transmission was made, the GPS position was in the North Sea. The bird’s final position, recorded on January 26, was about 15 miles offshore.

“It is beyond doubt that Fred’s disappearance is highly suspicious,” Dr Tingay said. “Golden eagles don’t generally fly out for miles over large bodies of sea water but even if Fred had done so, apart from defying everything we’ve learnt about Scottish golden eagle behaviour, we would have seen excellent tracking data plotting his route given the reliability of his tag.”

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, said the evidence strongly suggested an illegal killing. “Scotland’s birds of prey continue to be targeted by criminals, particularly in areas managed for driven grouse shooting,” he said. “We reiterate the need for this industry to be licensed.”

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, said that the location where the eagle disappeared was not an area of intensive grouse shooting. A spokesman added: “Our members, who wholeheartedly condemn all forms of wildlife crime, would echo the call for anyone with further information to pass this to Police Scotland.”

5 comments to Mystery deepens over the suspicious disappearance of Fred the young Golden Eagle

  • This incident shows the potential, of the BAWC funded satellite tags,to release information swiftly,which can only aid investigations of this kind. However,as is usual in these cases,nothing is clear cut,and once again nothing can be proved – yet.

    I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of the tags workings,although something plainly does not add up here. What people must not do,is pin their faith in the belief,that the eagle would never venture over that part of the sea of its own volition,when this is plainly not the case.

    The history of Golden Eagles nesting on the Antrim coast,and the likelihood that birds cross from the Scottish mainland to Lewis, and vice-versa should be borne in mind.

  • Albert Ross

    Whilst I agree that we a looking at circumstantial evidence of necessity one only has to look at some clear facts.
    1.January 20 Fred roosted by a grouse moor near Balerno.
    2. The bird ceased transmissions the following day.
    3. Prior to that the bird had transmitted regularly through the autumn.

    There are ONLY two scenarios.
    A. The bird took it into its head to fly to Fife and was either shot there and fell in the sea. (OK maybe it attacked a seabird and missed)
    B. Some bastard shot it near Balerno and it succumbed to its wounds and ended up in the sea.

    Given the number of mysterious disappearances elsewhere in Scotland near Grouse moors I know which scenario to put my money on.
    Keep up with the tagging! One day the criminals will make a mistake.

  • The signal from Fred at sea was transmitted for a couple of days as he drifted further eastwards until finally ending on the 26th January some fifteen miles off-shore. I have a few questions regarding all this though.

    Why did the authorities not immediately search the sea area for the bird if accurate satellite location data was available for a few days while it drifted at sea, as stated by a satellite tagging authority. Surely anyone’s normal reaction would be to organise a search of the sea area if the bird’s welfare was of any importance to them. In fact, is it conceivable that the bird with transmitter and harness would float for several days at sea. There are video records of fishing Bald Eagles that have floundered in the water and are able to float and flap swim for considerable distances.

    Why did the authorities not analyse the foraging data history of this bird as it seems that it was not showing a normal hunting-foraging pattern and was most likely to be weak and starving in that area close to urban Edinburgh and its motorway bypass. The eagle is recorded as skirting around the Pentland Hill margins and roosting in woods therein. Mountain Hare, as a traditional eagle prey item, in that area of the Pentland Hills are reputed to be locally extinct although Pentland Hills Regional Park has a listed record for them. Statistics show that roughly half of young eagles will not make it through their first year.

    Why has there been no analysis or mention of weather conditions at the time the bird was found off-shore because on the 21st of January the weather was good but by the 24th, when the bird went off-shore, south-westerly storm gales (Storm Georgina) occurred that would stray any weak bird off course; gales from the direction of the Pentland Hills would have potentially carried the bird north-eastwards to the coast near Fife. Golden Eagles in North America are known to have been blown off course during migration.

    Why is there no information about the 3 day break in transmitter signals from the time the bird was frequenting the wood until the signal was regenerated at sea. Despite the assurances from the authorities that transmitters work perfectly and are reliable, this is not true. Many have failed prematurely or have failed to charge their battery in low light winter conditions. GPS signals tend not to work in dense woodland or when the signal is occluded by conifer canopy ….that fact is well recorded and this eagle was roosting in conifers.

    Why did the authorities not investigate the welfare of this eagle when it was so close to hand near Edinburgh. Satellite data marked the eagle as being in a restricted and accessible place that would have offered up a perfect chance for those sitting in their Edinburgh RSPB office only five miles away to check out the eagle, especially when it was near a grouse moor with a sullied persecution history ….. bloody sure I would have volunteered to check it out every day when it was there. Half a million folk recreationally use the Pentland Hill area each year, surely someone could have looked out for this eagle that was so completely out of its natural comfort zone. The cluster of signal marks on the satellite tracking aerial map suggests that this bird was not acting normally by foraging widely over the hill areas …… Fred seems to be snookered by his circumstances.

  • Albert Ross

    Whist Dave raises some valid points that require answering such as why no “Red Alert” created an immediate search off Fife he seems to be fitting in other ‘facts’ that simply are not there.
    There is no evidence of the bird being weak or malnourished. Why assume it was not feeding during its ‘wood hopping’ travels? He had made it through since fledgeing so why suddenly stop?
    There is no evidence that the bird was not acting normally. What is acting normally? If the bird has fed well it will remain near a food source.

    Agreed. Mortality in young eagles is around 50%. 31% of tagged ones disappeared in a very restricted area of the Highlands in the last few years alone. It is beyond coincidence that all these were in Grouse shooting areas.
    Near Balerno there have been several recent incidents of wildlife crime.

    Agreed that Georgina may have played a part in relocation downwind BUT birds can cope with strong winds. Indeed they are masters of them.
    My question is why did the transmitter stop for three days and then suddenly re-start very strongly? One scenario is that no transmitter can signal from inside a box.
    My money is on the strong odds that a crime was committed.

  • Albert you raise good points but why put a dead eagle with its transmitter in a box or undercover and then keep it for 3 days before dumping at sea on the stormiest day of the month? I suggest that the bird was weak and starving because in that area prey is sparse in suitable foraging areas. I contacted someone who knows the Pentland Hills very well and he stated that even Rabbits are scarce, Brown Hare are occasionally seen on farmland and Mountain Hare have been recorded but they are locally extinct in certain zones. Red Grouse and Black Grouse are not common but are making a comeback. The only ready meals are game bird Pheasants and RL Partridges. So the prey picture is not rosy. Golden Eagles are expert flyers but I have observed eagles for years and sometimes they do struggle……no doubt having an un-aerodynamic satellite transmitter box on the back does not help. I watched a young GE in windy conditions a couple of weeks ago and it had to keep unusually low to the ground to make head way. Fred was out of a natural comfort zone in this area for sure.