This summer police made the biggest seizure of eggs in a decade. Jenny Shelton of RSPB Investigations explains more about this deadly obsession which puts declining species at risk.
Nature is in trouble and needs all the help it can get, which is why any efforts to harm wildlife or prevent it flourishing are particularly worrying.
Until recently, egg collecting was one of the biggest wildlife crimes the RSPB's Investigations team dealt with. Obsessive individuals building up large collections of wild birds’ eggs was, in the case of rare or declining birds, putting the future of species at risk. Birds like ospreys and white-tailed eagles for instance declined dramatically in the UK in the 19th century due partly to their eggs being prized by egg thieves.
Today, thankfully, egg collecting is largely a thing of the past. Taking of most wild birds' eggs has been illegal since 1954, and the possession of wild birds' eggs since 1981. In 2001, for the first time, these offences became punishable by jail – something the RSPB campaigned hard for and has had a significant effect in deterring many collectors. Now it’s rare that we hear of more than one or two incidents a year. However there are still a handful of large-scale collectors out there – one of whom appeared in court last week.
In May 2018 a man was seen acting suspiciously on Cawston Heath, Norfolk. When police searched him, they found he had nine linnet eggs in plastic tubs. The police contacted the RSPB and on their advice searched his home address – and a further collection of nearly 5000 eggs was discovered.
The man was Daniel Lingham, who had been jailed 13 years ago for egg collecting offences. A collection of nearly 4000 eggs had been uncovered at his home and he was jailed for 10 weeks. From the labels on his current collection, it was clear he had started collecting again soon after leaving prison in 2005. On 12 October 2018 he pleaded guilty in Norwich Magistrates Court, and the sentencing is due on 27 November.
UPDATE: Lingham was jailed for 18 weeks and given a 10-year Criminal Behaviour Order restricting him from visiting nature reserves in Norfolk during the bird breeding season.
So why do people collect eggs?
Egg collectors of this magnitude are not doing it to sell or display the eggs but purely for personal gratification. Eggs are illegal to sell and have next to no monetary value. Once collected, the egg is ‘blown’, by drilling a hole in the egg and using air to force out the contents, or a hook might be used to remove the embryo. The empty egg shells are kept as trophies and often stored in secret, under beds, with neighbours or in self storage units to prevent the authorities finding out.
‘Professional’ collectors like Lingham are different to schoolboy or amateur collectors, in that they will empty the entire nest, often returning to the same nest when the bird has relaid to take those eggs too. They might travel hundreds of miles to take the eggs of rare birds like eagles. This is not just a hobby – it’s an obsession. Lingham’s collection contained 109 nightjar eggs – this is a species conservationists are trying to protect. This summer, a pair of nightjars bred at the RSPB’s Headquarters in Bedfordshire for the first time in 45 years, thanks to a huge programme of heathland restoration. Everyone was delighted – so to hear of someone stealing nightjar eggs and limiting their breeding success is devastating. Lingham’s egg collection also included turtle dove, a bird which has declined by 94% in the UK since 1995.
The RSPB believes that there are still around 20 active adult egg collectors in the UK. If you notice anyone acting suspiciously in the countryside, for example looking in bushes or on the ground, wading out to islands, especially in the spring and summer during unsociable hours, please ring the police on 101. Your call could help stop an egg collector in his tracks and ensure clutches of eggs hatch into the birds they should become, for all to enjoy.
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