Today an English egg collector, Jan Frederick Ross formerly of Bury, Greater Manchester, was convicted in a Bulgarian court for egg collecting offences.
We first dealt with Mr Ross back in 1998 shortly after the start of his egg collecting career. A search warrant at his home in Bury found several recently taken eggs including clutches of osprey, red kite, peregrine and also Slavonian grebe from the RSPB Loch Ruthven reserve. He was later fined £4800 for a number of offences.
Despite this ongoing investigation, this seemed no deterrent and he teamed up with another local egg collector and focused his sights on the white-tailed eagle. In November 1998 our RSPB warden was in a local pub on the island of Mull, Scotland when Mr Ross and his new friend starting asking questions about eagles and claiming to be doing research for a BBC documentary. Two white-tailed eagle nests had been robbed earlier that year and the locals were understandably not happy and on high alert. So these rather dubious looking English characters quickly came to our attention. I visited both men with the police a short while later at their homes and they were advised about leaving the Mull eagles alone. However, in March 1999 they were caught on Mull near a white-tailed eagle nest with a small arsenal of egg collecting equipment. They were fined just £750 each. There was not much more the court could do with them despite the seriousness of the crime they were trying to commit. The lack of custodial sentences at that time meant that fines were still seen as an occupational hazard for many egg thieves.
In 2003, Ross and his associate were caught in Scotland yet again, this time with a number of recently taken birds’ eggs carefully hidden in a compartment under the bonnet. They were both fined over a £1,000 and probably only escaped jail because the option of custodial sentences did not arrive in Scotland until 2004.
After this things seemed to go quiet. So had Mr Ross learned his lesson? Based on the information we received in 2008 it would appear not. We were informed Mr Ross was now living in Burgas, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria and up to his old tricks. It was likely the authorities had no knowledge of this strange crime so he could no doubt plunder the Bulgarian countryside with little fear of being caught. With the help of the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit an intelligence report was sent to the Bulgarian authorities. But, with wildlife crime not really on the agenda in Bulgaria, it was not surprising that no investigation was ever started.
The imperial eagle is under threat in Bulgaria (Daniele Occhiato)
Fortunately, around this time the RSPB were working with the Bulgarian BirdLife partner, BSPB, on an EU LIFE project, ‘Save the Raptors’, looking at the conservation of saker falcon and imperial eagle in Bulgaria. I had been asked to assist with improving capacity building within the Bulgarian statutory authorities to tackle wildlife crime. Fortunately BSPB had a good contact with a senior police officer in Bourgas who took the matter seriously. These sorts of enquiries were unknown in Bulgaria and presented significant problems. However, following my visits to Bulgaria, a reciprocal visit by Bulgarian officials to a UK National Wildlife Crime conference, and assisted by plenty of Skype calls, we started to make some progress.
Finally in December 2011, I was present with the Burgas Police and a BSPB colleague, when the home of Mr Ross, a modern seafront apartment, was finally raided. Several police officers in leather jackets, looking a bit more like ex-KGB, raiding a flat in eastern Bulgaria looking for birds’ eggs was a bit surreal to say the least. Despite having not seen each other for over ten years, and the fact I was ‘some distance’ from my office, he recognised me immediately. After an initial slightly frosty reception he soon warmed and later chatted openly about his new life in Bulgaria and his ‘interests’ in birds and their eggs.
The 16 birds' eggs seized from the home of ROSS. All were taken in 2011 - bottom right is the egg of a griffon vulture ( G Shorrock RSPB)
In a small study we found just 16 birds’ eggs, all taken in 2011, which included the egg of a griffon vulture, a species given additional legal protection in Bulgaria (other eggs were six collared pratincole, five ortolan bunting and four blackcap). There was also a selection of egg collecting equipment.
Collared pratincole eggs and other items seized by the Bulgarian Police (G Shorrock RSPB)
However, the real prize lay tucked away behind some artwork on the lounge wall. Diaries and CD’s of photograph soon exposed exactly what he had been up to since he moved to Bulgaria in 2004.
These records came as something of a shock to BSPB. He had taken over a thousand eggs during his time in Bulgaria. It was the eggs of a number of very rare breeding birds that caused particular concern. In addition to the griffon vulture, the records indicated he had taken a clutch of the globally endangered Egyptian vulture. This species has had a significant global decline in the last 20 years and the population in Bulgaria has now dropped to less than 30 pairs. Despite the ongoing work on imperial eagles, and efforts to guard some of the nests, it appeared Mr Ross had helped himself to three clutches.
Back at the police station, as the records were revealed, there was an understandable amount of swearing from my BSPB colleague. Swearing sounds so much better with a Bulgarian accent. As a seasoned veteran of many egg collecting enquiries, I tried to calm the situation and professionally explained we had to look more dispassionately at the situation and treat this information just as evidence. A short while later I came across the records of clutches that had been taken in the UK until 2004, since his first collection had been taken off him in 1998. Amongst an extensive haul listed as taken were five clutches of each of osprey,red kite and golden eagle, and most shockingly, two clutches of white-tailed eagle eggs from Scotland. The Bulgarians were then treated to some rather non-dispassionate English swearing!
It seemed very likely a large collection of UK and Bulgarian eggs was stashed away somewhere nearby. However, with his involvement in property management, he had plenty of options available and we are still none the wiser where these may be hidden.
Dimitar Gradinarov (BSPB) speaks with the media about the first egg collecting case in Bulgaria (G Shorrock RSPB)
The case attracted widespread media interest in Bulgaria, appearing on the front page of one of the main newspapers, plus plenty of interest back home in the UK. I am not quite sure of what the local police made of a couple of TV crews turning up at the police station to film birds’ eggs. Having spent some time back home trawling through the evidence, I returned to Bulgaria in April 2012 to make some field enquiries and work with a Bulgarian TV crew on the case.
The beautiful Rhodope mountains in Bulgaria - home to griffon and Egyptian vultures (G Shorrock RSPB)
We wanted to locate some of the sites Mr Ross had raided to demonstrate the accuracy and true nature of his records. We travelled to the beautiful Rhodope mountains in south-east Bulgaria. Using his records and photographs we located the crags from where Mr Ross had taken his griffon vulture egg in 2011. It was a fairly remote spot and it took us some while scrambling around rocky terrain before we were able to precisely match his photograph of the nest ledge with the exact location. We were also fortunate to visit a nearby vulture feeding station and had tremendous views of vultures squabbling over a carcase.
Egyptian (front) and griffon vultures at a feeding station (G Shorrock RSPB)
We later located one of the imperial eagle nest sites raided by Ross and most interestingly an Egyptian vulture site near the town of Provadia in north-east Bulgaria. An old cave monastery in the cliffs high above the town had been made into a minor tourist site with a bridge across a small gorge. When a pair of Egyptian vultures started nesting the bridge was closed and iron mesh put over the entrance hole to allow the birds to nest in peace. The diaries of Mr Ross described in detail how he had come to the site one evening in 2010 with his young son. Using a crowbar he had managed to break one of the welds and make enough room for his young son to wriggle inside and take the two eggs for his father.
RSPB officer Guy Shorrock accessing the former Egyptian vulture nest site - a bit of a tight squeeze! (D Gradinarov BSPB)
The broken weld was present exactly as described, and, with somewhat more difficultly than his young son, I was just about able to wriggle through the gap myself. I visited the open sided cave, now eerily quiet with the remnants of the old nest on the floor. Being able to match parts of his diaries to the situation on the ground so accurately, showed these were genuine egg collecting records and not some work of fiction.
BSPB officer at the former Egyptian vulture site raided by Ross in 2010 (G Shorrock RSPB)
Unfortunately, unlike in the UK it appeared that without possession of the actual eggs taken before 2011, that no charges could be made for taking eggs based solely on the detailed diaries. I asked the police what would happen if I admitted killing my wife in Bulgaria but hiding the body somewhere it could never be found. I was told I could not be charged with that either!
The UK legal system can be a bit tortuous at times but in Bulgaria things seem particularly difficult. It was very difficult to get any information about what the Bulgarian prosecutors were up to and it was unfortunately my impression they were less than keen to be dealing with this strange enquiry. After a series of long delays and apparent stalling, RSPB wrote strong letters of concern to the regional prosecutor and the Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia emphasizing the conservation importance of the case and the international media interest. Whilst we had no reply to either, this seemed to do the trick and finally the matter proceeded to court nearly three years since the raid on his apartment.
It appears his three previous convictions in the UK could not be taken into account. However, today he received a jail sentence of six months suspended for three years and a fine of around £2000. We are informed for a first conviction of such an unusual crime this is a good result. So Mr Ross is well and truly on the radar in Bulgaria. Whether he continues to add to his collection, and potentially risk time in a Bulgarian jail, only time will tell. The RSPB would like to place on record the tremendous help from BSPB and the Burgas Police during this investigation.
A short video about the case can be seen here
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