Just a week ago, The Scotsman carried this story announcing the news that a radio-tagged sea eagle known as 'Bird 89' had been found poisoned with carbofuran on the Glenogil Estate in Angus - except that the bird had actually been found on 6 August (and even then was described as 'decomposed').
The RSPB jumped at the opportunity to denigrate shooting in general, with Duncan Orr Ewing stating in this press release: "once again it has been found in an area where sporting estates dominate the landscape". [It's been suggested this is unfair, and the statement doesn't implicate shooting in general. I disagree. That sort of statement leaves a clear impression in the public mind that shooting estates generally kill birds of prey. Replace 'sporting estates' with 'sheep farms' or 'golf courses' and the implication would be clear.]
This story appeared on the outdoor website grough appealing to hill walkers for information.
Meanwhile, on shooting forums dark conspiracy theories are being bandied about. Could it be a disgruntled former employee looking to get the estate into trouble? A poacher getting his own back? Farmers? Shepherds? Perhaps even anti-shooting activists looking to blacken the name of shooting? Or simply a case of raptocidal keepers thinking that, way up a glen with only one access road, they can keep getting away with it?
And why did it take more than six months for the eagle's death to be made public? Especially when the finding was perfectly timed to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season on 12 August, which would have guaranteed huge media coverage. Once again, conspiracy theorists are suggesting funny-handshake connections between estate owners and senior police.
In the latest development, both the RSPB and the estate owner, multi-millionaire businessman John Dodd, have complained publicly about the way the investigation is being handled.
On 23 Jan, Dodd was reported here complaining that he is being 'unfairly targeted' and hinting it might all be a publicity stunt by the bird protection lobby.
Then three days later the RSPB 'launches a stinging attack' on Tayside Police, saying they had failed to investigate the alleged crimes properly. Reading between the lines, it sounds like there's a serious rift between RSPB and the police here - there's a hint of 'stop telling us how to do our job' in the police response.
Both Dodd and the RSPB sound positively outraged. Can they both be right? Or is one of them playing a blinding game of bluff?
I'd be amazed if the full truth ever emerges - but I'm willing to bet it's stranger than fiction.
UPDATE 27/1:Chatting to people loosely connected with the estate, I'm getting a picture of a showpiece estate that's tightly run, with keepers and staff looked after well and provided with everything they need to do their jobs.
Among the local shooting community, the stories go that the keepers on Glenogil are mostly from northern England, and are all issued with smart new clothing, Benelli shotguns, etc. It seems they don't mix with the locals, and are rarely seen outside the estate.
Dodd himself has a reputation of standing no nonsense (which I suppose goes with the territory of running a successful business at that sort of level). He's also reputed to have little time for wildlife investigators. Legend has it that the local wildlife crime officer came round for a friendly chat and a cup of tea, to be met by a small army of lawyers.
Encouragingly, everyone I've spoken to, without hesitation, has said that a) they don't believe the estate is killing raptors, b) if it was, they wouldn't hesitate to report it.
I have spent several hours today talking to, as they say, 'sources close to' some of the major players in this. Although I can't name sources, I can say that the picture is becoming clearer.
On the one hand, those involved in fighting wildlife crime are 100% convinced that there's illegal killing of birds of prey going on. They know where, and by implication they're sure they know who's doing it. Putting together a case that would stand up in court is a different matter. Without that, it would be a brave man who took on Dodd and his lawyers. This could explain the Tayside Police's apparent inaction, which in turn has got the RSPB jumping up and down.
Glenogil has, by all accounts, had a phenomenal grouse season in 2009. We're talking thousands of brace, and at getting on for £150 a brace that's serious money. That success is not down to any single activity, but the result of thorough attention to every detail of grouse moor management.
If you look up Glenogil on Google Maps, and look at the hills in 'satellite view', you'll see acre upon acre of an exemplary patchwork of burnt strips providing excellent grouse habitat (zoom in and you can even see the rows of grouse butts).
Probably the single most important factor at Glenogil has been controlling the ticks that attack grouse directly, and also infect them with louping ill. This has been achieved following techniques devised by the GWCT, an organisation that Dodd has strong links to. These techniques include using sheep as 'wool mops' to mop up ticks, which are then killed by sheep dip. Deer and mountain hare control also play a part.
Also involved in the grouse management at Glenogil is Mark Osborne, who has been linked with a number of estates suspected of wildlife crimes in the past. This has meant, rightly or wrongly, he's
become something of a target for those fighting wildlife crime; his involvement is bound to draw attention to the estate.
Interestingly, I'm also hearing mutterings about grouse being bred and released, something that received wisdom says can't be done. If someone has cracked the problems of how to do it, now that would be a story!
UPDATE 14/2:I came across the following comment on the Raptor Politics blog (home of the provisional wing of the birdwatching fraternity). Interesting point, don't know if it's true or not:
This sea eagle did not die in August 2009. It died in March 2009, but the RSPB people could not locate the dead bird until they brought in an expert tracker in August 2009.