THEY are among the biggest and most recognisable birds of prey in the British Isles. But today conservationists issued an appeal for information after eight golden eagles disappeared over a northern Scottish mountain range in less than five years.

All were fitted with satellite transmitters and none of the tags have been recovered.

Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, believes the country’s game shooting industry may be to blame.

Speaking the day before the “Glorious Twelfth” – the opening of Scotland’s grouse shooting season – he said: “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.”

The raptors – all less than three years old – were being monitored by a range of environmental groups when they went off radar in the northern Monadhliath mountains near Inverness.

The first to go missing, which was last recorded in the hills above Strathdearn, vanished in November 2011. A second disappearance happened in July 2012, with a third in March 2014.

Transmissions from two further eagles stopped at another location across the glen over a three-week period in October 2014.

Data from another three tagged birds ended in the hills above the River Findhorn in May, June and early July.

The last bird to go missing was Brodie, a female hatched two years ago who was fitted with a transmitter shortly before fledging from her nest as part of a project aimed at improving our understanding of the movements and survival of young golden eagles.

The tags, fitted by experts under controlled conditions, continue to transmit even if they come off or the animal dies. This allows researchers to recover the bodies and tech for additional data.

But despite comprehensive searches of the areas around the last-known positions of all eight eagles, none of the birds or trackers has been found and no more data has been received.

Persecution of protected birds is illegal under Scots law and carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a £5,000 fine.

Tests on a golden eagle and a white-tailed eagle found dead in the Monadhliath mountains in 2010 showed they had been illegally poisoned. Several other raptors have gone off-radar in upper Donside and west Aberdeenshire in recent years. In every case, they wore transmitters which were fully functional prior to disappearing.

Thomson said: “It is surely no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of satellite-tagged birds of prey that have disappeared in Scotland have been in areas intensively managed for gamebird shooting and in areas that have an appalling previous record of confirmed incidents of raptor persecution.

“These eight birds have all disappeared in an area where driven grouse moor management dominates the landscape, and where there have been many previous cases of illegal killing of protected raptors, including the poisoning of a golden eagle and a white-tailed eagle as recently as 2010.”

He went on: “Once again, the commendable positive efforts of those landowners and estates who welcome golden eagles and host their nesting attempts, including elsewhere in the Monadhliaths, are being cata- strophically undermined by those who have a complete disregard for the law, and who continue to threaten the conservation status of these magnificent birds.

“All of these eagles were young birds exploring Scotland before establishing their own territories and with their disappearance any potential future breeding by them to aid the population’s recovery is also lost.”

Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group, said its members are committed to golden eagle conservation. He said: “There is no clear evidence of the golden eagles having died in the Monadhliath area, let alone having been ‘persecuted’ on grouse moors as the RSPB is alleging.

“It is more than 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 Paws (Partnership Against Wildlife Crime Scotland) – 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.”

Meanwhile, two breeding pairs of white-tailed sea eagles are rearing chicks on the Isle of Canna following a successful breeding season, it has emerged.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which owns the island, says Canna is believed to have the highest density of eagles in the country. The pairs are raising two chicks each and Dr Richard Luxmoore of NTS said: “Canna has proven to be a very productive breeding site for sea eagles and most years since reintroduction we have had two pairs nesting on the island.

“It is not so common to have both pairs successfully raise two chicks each so this is great news.”