A NEW study has uncovered “compelling evidence” of the illegal killing of protected birds on grouse moors, it is claimed.

This is based on 10 years’ worth of data centred around hen harriers in the north of England. Many of the raptors had a range which took them into southern Scotland.

Aberdeen University, working with colleagues at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, analysed records produced by satellite tags on almost 60 birds.

They found the chances of hen harriers dying or disappearing over areas predominantly covered by grouse moor was 10 times higher than areas without the sporting estates.

More than 70% of tagged harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed.

Speaking to The National, Professor Steve Redpath, who is chair in conservation science at Aberdeen University, said: “We found the tags were suddenly failing on grouse moors at a much higher rate than expected by chance. We can’t think of an alternative explanation.

“What do we do about it? It’s not an easy thing to answer. There clearly needs to be change.”

Last week, Labour MSP Claudia Beamish said wildlife crime was “intractable” in the South Scotland region she represents.

Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee heard the 96% conviction rate is the highest in seven years, but some incidents of poisoning against birds of prey are not recorded as crimes due to difficulties in proving their deaths were intentional.

MSPs raised concerns about the disappearances of three hen harriers and six golden eagles, and David Green, of the Procurator Fiscal Service, told a meeting of the committee that evidence gathering “is a problem” for investigators. He said: “You can find that you’ve got raptors that have been poisoned, but were they poisoned where they were found or potentially many miles away?”

On what the study data means for Scotland, which has higher numbers of hen harriers than England, Redpath said: “We can’t say very much about Scotland. It’s probably a reflection of insensitive grouse moor management. We would have to repeat this in the Highlands to see if these findings apply.”

He went on: “These findings increase the pressure on grouse moor managers, conservation organisations and government agencies to find a solution that ends this illegal activity.”

Welcoming the report, published in Nature Communications, Stephen Murphy of Natural England called it a “significant step in understanding the fate of tagged hen harriers”.