INDEPENDENT monitors should oversee satellite tags on birds of prey to improve “accountability and transparency” after a spate of deaths, gamekeepers say.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) is to launch a petition calling for the introduction of a new monitoring regime to help police prosecute potential wildlife crimes and provide “more transparent” records on the persecution of protected birds.

Tags are placed on species including golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites to track their movements, learn about their behaviours and detect illegal killings.

A total of 50 crimes against birds were recorded in Scotland in 2016-17, which does not include the disappearances of six golden eagles and three hen harriers.

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The RSPB and other bodies have suggested shooting businesses and large estates could be behind some disappearances, but landowners say they too are involved in the fight against raptor persecution.

Last month it was confirmed that two red kites found dead in Kirkcudbright had been illegally poisoned.

Under the current system, Police Scotland must request data on tagged birds from the tag owners or third parties. However, the SGA says that system has “enabled campaigners to present versions of evidence for publicity, even in instances where police investigators have not been able to establish criminality”.

Alex Hogg, chair of the SGA, said: “Accountability and transparency has to be the objective.

“Despite media accusation and trials, no cases of missing satellite tags have ever had the evidential rigour to go to court. If police had the oversight on the data and the independent expertise to analyse it, there is greater potential for prosecution. Police themselves admitted in parliament recently that establishing criminality in satellite tag cases is difficult.”

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The SGA claims the 2018 case of “Fred the Eagle” proves why a review is needed. The signal from that bird’s tag went dead in the Pentlands in January before resuming in the North Sea days later.

The organisation claims clips posted to YouTube by campaigners show activists with tag information used this to “drip-feed” a narrative and shape public opinion before passing it to police for thorough investigation.

Two online clips on the matter are said to show the same snow patterns on the ground, despite being released weeks apart.

Hogg commented: “If tags were independently monitored, scenarios like this would simply not occur. Evidence would replace speculation.”

Appearing before MSPs in March, Detective Chief Superintendent David McLaren said tag reliability is “improving” but challenges around evidence gathering remain for investigators.