Persecution Suspected In Disappearance Of Merrick The Golden Eagle

Following an investigation by Police Scotland, representatives for a groundbreaking conservation initiative, which attributes its success to overwhelming support from the public, raptor workers and land managers, have today (Wednesday 1 May 2024) confirmed that they are confident Merrick the golden eagle’s disappearance is due to persecution.


Merrick (F43), a female golden eagle that the project team translocated to southern Scotland in 2022, was reported missing in autumn 2023. With permission from Police Scotland, further information about the circumstances of Merrick’s disappearance and the evidence left behind can now be revealed.


Sharing further details, Project Manager, Dr Cat Barlow said: “We can confirm that Police Scotland has found clear evidence that a wildlife crime has been committed. They are confident Merrick’s disappearance was due to persecution.


“The South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project is incredibly angry, upset and disappointed that her disappearance appears to have been at the hands of an individual or individuals who consider themselves above the law.


“The Project’s translocated eagles have captured the hearts and minds of all our supporters, from conservationists, and raptor workers to landowners and the wider community, including children, visitors and business operators, who all share in our utter shock and disappointment.


“However, this incident, and the staunch support we have had, makes us utterly determined to fight the persecution of golden eagles and continue our successful translocation work to reinstate a resilient population of golden eagles across southern Scotland.”


Chair of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project, Dumfriesshire farmer Michael Clarke added: “Whoever committed this deplorable wildlife crime should hang their heads in shame. Golden eagles are back to stay in the South of Scotland, and we very much hope they continue to spread from here to all parts of the UK.


“We thank everyone for their support at this tough time. We are grateful to Police Scotland for their support and using all the resources at their disposal to establish the full circumstances. We remain more determined than ever to establish a sustainable population of golden eagles in the South of Scotland.”


Merrick (F43) originated from Rottal Estate near Kirriemuir in the Angus Glens, a traditional sporting estate, which is accredited by Wildlife Estates Scotland (WES) for its commitment to protecting and restoring wildlife and biodiversity. Speaking about her disappearance, estate owner and Chair of Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) Dee Ward said: “We utterly condemn raptor persecution in the strongest possible terms and it is right and proper that anyone who commits such an act is prosecuted and convicted.


“Merrick is an eagle our own family estate donated to the project and we’re incredibly proud of the part we and many other estates, land managers and gamekeepers have played in the success of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project. Indeed, the project has otherwise been an incredible success built on respect and co-operation between keepers, farmers, foresters and raptor conservationists.
“This incident makes us all the more passionate about continuing that support and we will do all we can to prevent, detect and condemn anyone who thinks this kind of abhorrent behaviour is acceptable.”

Merrick was the fifth eagle collected in the summer of 2022, the last to leave the aviaries, and the heaviest eagle translocated that summer, at 5.2 kg. She was named after the highest peak in the Southern Uplands, by the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project’s host charity, the Southern Uplands Partnership (SUP).


The project team has followed Merrick’s journey since her release using round-the-clock surveillance techniques, alongside reports of sightings from the Moorland Association and shooting estates across the country. She was thriving before her disappearance and exploring widely across the south of Scotland and Northern England. She was even photographed on a trip to Weardale and filmed in Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.


Each of the project’s eagles are fitted with a state-of-the-art satellite tag which transmits regular, reliable and accurate information about the birds’ wellbeing and movements. Until her disappearance, Merrick’s tag had been transmitting normally. During the eight days before her disappearance, she was exploring the Moorfoot Hills. Then on 12 October, her tag suddenly stopped transmitting, indicating “no malfunction”, which strongly suggested human interference.


On a visit to check on a juvenile eagle in the area, Eagle Officer, John Wright, inspected the relatively bare branches of a Sitka Spruce, Merrick’s last known roosting spot. He very quickly noticed a small golden lanceolate shaped head feather, two small wing coverts and some white under-down laying on the moss directly below the tree. Recalling his visit to the site, John said: “I saw a film of blood stretched across the grass stems. It subsequently turned out that a considerable amount of blood was present in and below the moss layer. As I stood back from the feather and blood location, I could see small downy feathers scattered in the dense spruce foliage below the roosting branches.


“Merrick had been roosting (sleeping perched) in a tree when her tag stopped transmitting. Golden eagles, as apex predator, have very few natural predators and so fears that Merrick had been fatally injured whilst roosting were quickly dismissed. Police Scotland have told us that they are confident humans were involved in the demise of this eagle.”


The Project team contacted Police Scotland, who promptly reached the site before weather destroyed any evidence to investigate the incident. This allowed them to confidently eliminate most other potential causes of death or disappearance. The nature and pattern of feathers and blood, and all other evidence, indicated to the Police that Merrick was shot and killed.


Dr Cat Barlow said: “Looking at the evidence, Police Scotland believe she was shot then fell to the ground, where she bled considerably through a single wound. Police Scotland believe that someone then removed her body and destroyed her satellite tag.”


In November, Police Scotland issued a statement stating that they believed she had “come to harm” and were treating her disappearance as “suspicious.”


Detective Sergeant David Lynn, Police Scotland Wildlife Crime Coordinator, said: “Since the report was made, officers have been working with a range of partner agencies to establish more details and gather further information to establish the circumstances.
“The bird was last seen in the area to the west of Fountainhall, between Heriot and Stow on Thursday, 12 October. A full search of this area was carried out and officers believe the bird has come to harm and are treating its disappearance as suspicious.
“We are determined to protect these magnificent birds. We work closely with a number of partners to tackle wildlife crime, which can be challenging and complex to investigate. I urge anyone with any information to contact us through 101 quoting reference number 1193 of 18 October. Alternatively, please contact Crimestoppers though 0800 555 111, where anonymity can be maintained.”

The South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project partners the Southern Uplands Partnership, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates, Scottish Forestry, GWCT and NatureScot all share in the bitter disappointment of today’s news.


Since the first chicks were released in 2018, the project has had significant success, quadrupling the local population of golden eagles to the highest number seen in the area for centuries. Survival rates of the translocated birds are 90%, which is incredibly high.


The translocated golden eagles regularly and safely visit upland areas, which are managed for shooting and are a natural habitat for the golden eagle. The project has had excellent support from shooting estates in the area, who have worked with the team in many ways to ensure golden eagles thrive in southern skies – from the provision of chicks to supporting the development of artificial eyries in a safe place on their land.


Anyone who has any information is asked to contact Police Scotland on 101. For more information visit: www.goldeneaglessouthofscotland.co.uk