A SCIENTIFIC discovery could yield a new weapon against wildlife crime as fingerprints can be recovered from bird feathers left exposed for the first time.

PhD student Helen McMorris has been able to recover the prints from feathers left in wind and rain.

It is hoped her work will transform the investigation of wildlife crime and drive up convictions across the UK.

This includes the deliberate killing of protected species like sea eagles, red kites, buzzards and peregrines.

Earlier this year a peregrine was found poisoned in the Pentland Hills, while four satellite-tagged hen harriers disappeared over grouse moors in Aberdeenshire, the Highlands and Perth and Kinross over a 10-week period.

And according to conservation charity RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report, around 70 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution were recorded last year.

However, just four cases were prosecuted and only one of these resulted in a conviction.

Lack of definitive proof of human involvement is a major obstacle for investigators.

McMorris, who is also a teaching fellow at Abertay University in Dundee, hopes her findings will be the breakthrough investigators need.

She said: “Toxicology tests can prove that a raptor has been poisoned, and you can prove that a bird has been shot through x-rays and post mortem.

“But there’s no way of telling if a human has had any contact with that bird if it’s found dead in a field or on a hillside. You have to assume there has been foul play of some description, but you can’t hone in on the

actual person responsible.

“This technique potentially gives investigators the chance to prove

actual human involvement in raptor persecution, be it through an identifiable fingerprint or a touch mark from a human finger that identifies exact areas of contact on the bird of prey.”

Dr Ben Jones, head of science at Abertay, commented: “This study is an important step in moving from the laboratory closer to a real-life situation, as the technique moves from research to development for use in an investigative setting.”

Meanwhile, the latest statistics from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) show upland birds continue to struggle despite recoveries by their woodland and farmland counterparts.

While forest species have increased by 69% since 1994 and farmland varieties are up 154%, upland bird numbers have fallen by 17%.

Out of the 17 upland species surveyed, 10 are in “significant long-term decline”, including curlew and dotterel which have decreased by 62% and 60% respectively.

Climate change and the loss of habitat that provides food and cover are blamed.

Simon Foster, SNH’s trends analyst, said: “These latest figures reflect the long-term trends we have seen for Scotland’s breeding birds.

“There is good news for our woodland and farmland birds, with many species continuing to thrive, but in line with previous years upland birds are facing real challenges.

“Upland waders are a real concern and we are working with others to try and help these birds through a range of measures including restoring their breeding habitats.”

The chiffchaff, great spotted woodpecker and blackcap have undergone the biggest long-term gains among woodland birds, with the latter species extending its range further north.

Tree pipits, willow warblers and song thrushes also saw numbers climb by more than 10% between 2016 and 2017.

Meanwhile, some farmland varieties, such as the goldfinch, whitethroat, and great tit, are now more than twice as abundant as in 1994.

And the numbers of others, including the magpie and corncrake have also increased by more than 50%.

In the uplands, populations of the cuckoo, raven and red grouse have experienced the biggest increase over the period.

Ben Darvill, from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Scotland, said: “No-one is quite sure what Scotland will look like 50 years from now.

“Long-term monitoring helps us to understand the impact of historical changes on our wildlife and, through this, to help us predict the impact of future changes.”