Technology challenge launched to solve problem of finding hidden or destroyed satellite tags

The Cairngorms National Park Authority has joined forces with Scottish Natural Heritage to co-sponsor a new CivTech challenge aimed at finding a creative and innovative technology-based solution to the problem of finding ‘disappearing’ satellite tagged raptors.

As you’ll be aware, satellite-tagged raptors are ‘disappearing’ in Scotland and England with increasing frequency. There was a time, in the early years of satellite tagging raptors, that illegally-killed birds would be found as their tags were still emitting signals allowing researchers to pinpoint the location of the corpse and thus evidence of the crime (e.g. poisoned golden eagle Alma whose corpse was found on Millden Estate in the Angus Glens in 2009). However, the raptor-killing criminals got wise to this and in recent years have been making more effort to destroy and hide the tag at the same time as killing the bird.

This lack of hard evidence causes problems for the wildlife crime enforcement agencies because it becomes very hard to prove that the bird has actually been killed. In a small number of cases, the satellite tag could just have malfunctioned, and we have seen evidence of this (e.g. hen harrier Highlander here), although the expected frequency of this happening is very low (the recent golden eagle satellite tag review identified tag reliability, based on studies of the same tags deployed in the US and Europe, as around 98%). Nevertheless, even with the high number of ‘disappearing’ tagged raptors in Scotland but little hard evidence of criminality, researchers have still been able to identify unusual concentrations / spatial clusters of where these birds have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances.

For example, here is a map showing the significant spatial clustering of ‘disappeared’ tagged golden eagles that just happen to be concentrated in several areas of driven grouse moors in and around the Cairngorms National Park, as identified in the golden eagle satellite tag review:

This identification of ‘suspicious’ persecution hotspots is excellent, and has contributed significantly to the Scottish Government finally accepting that this is an on-going problem that needs addressing, but it doesn’t provide enough information to instigate criminal proceedings against those involved. More hard evidence is required for that.

CivTech is a Scottish Government-led initiative, first piloted in 2016, which challenges creative technologists to come up with a solution to public sector problems. Some of the first challenges included improving flood forecasting and ensuring it is better used, and improving air quality in urban areas.

The joint Cairngorms National Park Authority / Scottish Natural Heritage challenge invites technologists to look at the problem of ‘disappearing’ satellite-tagged raptors and to devise a solution to find those tags, or at least provide ‘indestructible’, real-time information about the tag’s last location before it was tampered with. This probably won’t overcome the long-term problem of identifying an actual individual criminal, especially on an estate that employs multiple gamekeepers, but it might just be enough to create a deterrent. At the very least, it should provide enough information for the Scottish Government to impose civil sanctions on that estate – sanctions that are currently being discussed after Roseanna Cunningham’s announcement last month.

Opening up this challenge to the CivTech community is a very clever idea as it will reach an audience that probably knows nothing of this issue, and who may well come up with a solution that is beyond the expertise of the typical conservationist. Who knows what the technology geeks will come up with? The two instigators of the challenge (Grant Moir from CNPA and Keith Duncan from SNH) are open-minded as to what the solution might look like, e.g. a software-based solution that can be applied remotely to tags that are already deployed, or a new hardware solution that involves fitting a new gadget on to new raptors. Any new solution may be trialled in the Cairngorms National Park, a massive raptor persecution hotspot, and if successful, could be rolled out across the UK.

The closing date for applications has already passed (1 June 2017) and a ‘pitch day’ has been set for 26 July 2017.

Well done Grant and Keith. We look forward to hearing more about this later in the year.

12 Responses to “Technology challenge launched to solve problem of finding hidden or destroyed satellite tags”

  1. 1 alan
    June 13, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    Great idea. If you have a tag that sends a signal, the minute it detects no heart beat, it should be easy see exactly where and when something has happened. Even better, make them public to be viewed all the time. So far keeping locations secret only helps the criminals. Every estate should already know what raptors are on their estate so makes no difference to them, but will mean more public are aware of locations.
    Any bad estates will be identified quickly.
    Might be an issue with egg collectors, but I cant see it making things any worse with them.
    It will be interesting if it does bring wind turbines in to the equation.
    I find it strange that the RSPB haven’t funded any independent research on their effect yet?

    • June 13, 2017 at 12:10 pm


      Try reading the golden eagle satellite tag review – the chapter on wind farms debunks this perpetual myth that the raptor killing apologists keep trying to use to deflect attention away from the game shooting industry.

      • 3 alan
        June 13, 2017 at 2:23 pm

        Its nothing to do with deflection. I personally believe its a bigger issue than given credit. Like I said, if transmitters work, it should give a good indication if relevant or not. There is a wind farm application about to come up near me, that stated that Eagle collision would not be an issue as they haven’t been flying as low as the turbines in that area. The next week I saw one that low and someone else had a nice photo of one that low. It may be that they aren’t an issue, but I personally struggle to see how an eagle or other raptor, wouldn’t fly in to a turbine in winter when there was a carcass there. Lets get suitable transmitters and then have the conversation. It still astounds me that the RSPB haven’t commissioned a study on the impacts yet.

        • June 13, 2017 at 5:11 pm

          It’s everything to do with deflection. It’s classic whataboutery.

          Here’s a quote from page one of the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review:

          “Wind farms were not associated with any recorded golden eagle deaths, and there were very few records of tagged young golden eagles near wind farms”.

          Which part of that are you having trouble understanding?

          • 5 nirofo
            June 13, 2017 at 9:12 pm

            This doesn’t follow with the huge amount of wind farm kills at places like Terifa in Spain and various other wind farm areas in the world where raptor kills are well documented, they are a continuing and growing problem as more and more wind farms are erected and the number of raptor kills increase. It has still not been fully accepted by the wind farm industry who continue to deny there’s a serious problem. Wearing a satellite tag doesn’t make them immune it just makes them easier to find and destroy by the people who are trying to brush it under the carpet and make it disappear.

            • 6 Messi
              June 13, 2017 at 10:17 pm

              What do you mean it ‘doesn’t follow’ – facts are facts. Wind farms in the areas in question not associated with deaths; very few records of tagged eagles near wind farms. Terifa is an example of poorly positioned wind farms causing mass mortality on a major migratory route. I personally hate wind farms and reckon solar will render the damned things obsolete in the not-too-distant future, but prefer to deal with facts as to their impacts on birds and the facts are that this study revealed no mortality associated with wind farms and few records of eagles near wind farms. Focus on the real issue if you want to solve the problem.

          • 7 alan
            June 14, 2017 at 8:33 am

            Well theres a first, I agree with Nirofo.
            To be fair, there is an exceptional amount of wind farms within sight of my house and im fairly sure none of them have been a risk to golden eagles, as there isn’t any there.
            Whether they are a risk to buzzards and kites is a different question.
            However, that certainly isn’t any justification for the next farm being a risk to eagles, as there are some there.

    • 8 dave angel
      June 13, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      ‘make them public to be viewed all the time.’


      Not a good idea.

  2. June 13, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Shouldn’t gamekeepers be registered? Just a thought. Might make it harder for them to work again should they ever (!) get convicted of wildlife crime.

  3. 10 AnMac
    June 13, 2017 at 5:27 pm

    Really good to hear that modern technology is being considered for raptor persecution. Perhaps it can be similar to the ‘black’ box technology that aircraft carry so that they can be located. These are also indestructible which would also be of importance.

    The previous blogger ‘cairnton’ suggested that all gamekeepers be registered. How about also fitting them with GPS tags so we know where they are at all times!! It would of course be a compulsory part of their employment as a registered gamekeeper. Perhaps I am dreaming. Sorry.

    • 11 PTH
      June 14, 2017 at 7:43 am

      Could raptors be micro chipped as per our domestic dogs? – could it be possible that the chip also has a GPS capability? or is this tech a bit far fetched at present? Very pleased to hear that the tech industry is being brought into this with fresh independent eyes.

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