As one of the RSPB's Senior Investigations Officers, I've been involved in many cases involving crimes against peregrines. You might have read about this particular case in the papers or seen it on TV - it shows some of the threats that these spectacular birds still face.
The peregrine has the accolade of being the fastest bird in the world, stooping from the sky like a thunderbolt. Unfortunately, it is still far too slow to escape human greed and prejudice.
On 19 August 2010, Jeffrey Lendrum pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle 14 peregrine eggs out of the UK, and taking these eggs from four nest sites in Wales. He received a 30-month jail sentence - ironically, caged like many of the birds he had previously supplied from the wild.
In May, an alert cleaner at Birmingham Airport noticed Lendrum acting suspiciously. Lendrum, who has dual Zimbabwean and Irish nationality, was booked on a flight to South Africa, with a 14-hour stop-over in Dubai.
When he was searched, 14 peregrine eggs were found wrapped in socks and taped to his body, so they would keep warm. Lendrum was arrested and an experienced officer from the National Wildlife Crime Unit was called in to assist.
Lendrum's car was found in the long-stay car park. Inside, there was an incubator and climbing equipment. The police also tracked down another incubator in a storage unit that Lendrum rented in Northamptonshire.
Mr Lendrum has a rather interesting history. As far back as 1984, he was convicted in Zimbabwe for dealing in birds of prey, then in 2002 he was caught in Canada with a British national trying to take peregrines and gyrfalcons. To do this, he abseiled from a helicopter he had hired in order to reach the nests!
This time, Lendrum had travelled from South Africa to take the eggs from nest sites in south Wales. We believe his stop over in Dubai was where the eggs would have been passed on. There seems little doubt Lendrum was a major international courier and supplying birds to order. This was clearly a lucrative operation and the court was told that had all 14 eggs hatched, they could have been potentially worth up to £70,000.
For the peregrines at least, this was a case with a happy ending. Having seized the eggs at the airport, this created a problem with what to do with them. Fortunately, they were passed to a local experienced falconer who did a fantastic job, and after some sleepless nights was able to incubate the eggs and raise 11 young peregrine chicks. In many cases we have worked on with the police, we have had great help from people in the falconry world, from looking after birds to providing expert evidence in court.
Photo: The precious eggs nestled in an incubator the day after they were taken from Mr Lendrum
We were contacted for advice about what to do next. Myself and others have previous experience of getting very young peregrines back to the wild and we knew if we could find some wild nest sites with less than a full compliment of chicks (usually four) we could re-foster the chicks into these nests.
Peregrines may be lightning-fast, but it would appear they're not all that bright and apparently unable to count. Once the new chicks are introduced, the parents simply return and carrying on feeding them as if they were their own offspring.
However, the problem was finding suitable nest sites, so the call went out to a whole range of people and volunteers around the country who monitor peregrine nest sites. A dedicated Raptor Study Group Worker who annually monitors many peregrines sites across southern Scotland came up with the goods.
It was agreed that seven of the 11 offspring would be fostered and the remaining four would be returned to the wild by falconers using other methods.
There was then the logistic exercise of moving the birds from the Midlands to Scotland, keeping the birds fed en-route, abseiling with them down precipitous cliffs and keeping a BBC camera crew happy at the same time. In two stages, the seven chicks went back into three different peregrine nest sites. All the birds successfully fledged – all blissfully unaware their lives had started somewhere in the valleys of south Wales.
Photo: RSPB staff putting three chicks into a Scottish peregrine nest site
Peregrines still under pressure
The peregrine population in the UK fell sharply in the 1950s and 1960s becauseof pesticides in the food chain. Discovering this problem in the UK helped highlight this global problem.
The recovery of the peregrine has been a success story and regarded as a cause célèbre amongst conservationists. The last UK survey showed a population of 1,402 pairs. The species has become increasingly ‘urbanised’ and public viewing schemes like our Dates with Nature have allowed thousands to enjoy this fantastic bird.
Despite this comeback, the peregrine is still under pressure in the UK and remains a much-persecuted species. Over the last 30 years, our records show that over 130 people have been convicted for crimes against peregrines. Birds are regularly killed on sporting estates to reduce predation pressure on game birds, there are conflicts with some pigeon fanciers who do not like their birds being taken, and their attractive, reddish eggs are taken by collectors.
Eggs, chicks and adults have also been taken for the falconry market both at home and abroad. Twenty years ago, a number of German nationals were convicted after trying to take wild Scottish peregrines out of the UK. In 1999, a Dutch national was caught in a police and RSPB sting operation when he arrived at a car park in Scotland, expecting to purchase wild peregrines.
The Lendrum case shows an international demand still exists. While captive-bred birds can be legally obtained, wild-taken birds, honed by natural selection, are often regarded as having a superior pedigree.
Falconry is very popular in the Middle East and practiced by extremely affluent individuals. Traditionally, this was with the saker falcon, which is now listed as ‘endangered’, primarily because of the continued take of wild birds for the Middle East market. Other species, and hybrid falcons, have also become popular. Mr Lendrum clearly had wealthy clients prepared to buy his illegal birds on the black market.
From the start of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, there were significant problems in the UK with peregrines being taken from the wild despite a registration scheme for birds held in captivity. For those in the know, this was fairly easy to bypass by claiming that wild taken birds were bred in captivity. This problem was dramatically reduced following enforcement activity in the 1990s after the RSPB pioneered the use of DNA profiling to challenge captive breeding claims.
A number of convictions followed, including two very high profile cases involving the laundering of large numbers of peregrines. Both men received custodial sentences and these are regarded as two of the landmark cases in the history of wildlife crime enforcement in the UK. Encouragingly, there was also a reduction in nest robberies of peregrines.
In late 2008, despite strong representations from police, RSPB, and JNCC - their own scientific advisors - the government controversially relaxed the registration controls on keeping peregrines in captivity. This has made UK bird keepers less accountable for keeping peregrines and made use of DNA profiling to check breeding claims far more difficult.
Whilst registration controls have no bearing on the likes of Mr Lendrum, who was smuggling the eggs straight out the country, this case does demonstrate there is still a demand for wild-taken peregrines. Whilst this demand exists, some individuals will always be tempted to take birds and pass them off as captive-bred.
The current relaxation in controls may make this idea even more inviting. Disturbingly, the last couple of years have seen increased human interference at peregrine nest sites – whether this reflects an increased demand for falconry birds is too early to tell. However, the demand for such birds still exists and we believe the government should take these sorts of cases as a warning and re-instate full registration controls for the peregrine.
At the beginning of 2009, the Government outlined its six national UK Wildlife Crime Priorities (download the PDF).
Encouragingly, this includes ‘Raptor Persecution’ - with a focus on five species (golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, red kite, goshawk and hen harrier). We believe, in view of the sustained levels of persecution, that the peregrine has to be added to this priority list.
We believe that similar stiff penalties should be imposed for people who trap, shoot and poison these birds and not just those who take them for profit.
This case also demonstrates the value of having a dedicated National Wildlife Crime Unit who have the resources and experience to assist the police in such cases. We hope the government will continue to support and expand the role of the unit in tackling all areas of wildlife crime.
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