In the previous two blogs I outlined the background to egg collecting when I started at the RSPB in 1991 and the formation of Operation Easter in 1997. So, the police were now getting organised to tackle the threat of egg thieves – but it was clear that court sentencing options were no meaningful deterrent for persistent serial offenders. Things needed to change.
In a rather timely reminder that egg collecting has not gone away, only yesterday the Norfolk Constabulary announced they had seized an astonishing 5000 birds' eggs from an address in Norfolk. These are currently being unloaded at RSPB headquarters and one of my colleagues will now be devoting a significant amount of time to cataloging this collection to assist the police investigation.
On 22 May 2017 Norfolk Constabulary seized around 5000 eggs
Anyway, back to this final blog and I am rewinding back to 1996. I was in the office one day checking through recent reports when I came across an incident where a member of the public had seen three people taking peregrines eggs from a site in Cumbria. The police were called and stopped them returning to their vehicle. They were well known egg collectors, but nothing incriminating was found, the eggs had presumably been hidden before reaching the roadside. That appeared to be the end of any police action, but I saw there were grounds for search warrants, so I contacted Northumbria Police to set the ball rolling. Warrants were obtained for the three addresses, and my colleague Keith Morton came down from Scotland to assist. Rather annoyingly, Keith got the best option with some 48 eggs found hidden under the loft insulation. This included a clutch of four osprey eggs – this is a very rare event and high on the wish list of any egg thief. More significantly, they also found all his records of egg taking. He had used a code system with a letter to try and disguise the year of taking. Using our database and contacting raptor workers around the UK, Keith eventually got the records into the right order. This showed a veritable crime wave of egg collecting from 1986 to 1996, but the bulk of his collection was obviously somewhere else. Our Newcastle man pleaded guilty to possession of the eggs and a number of taking offences detailed in his records. Conviction number three resulted in fine of £1000, which was going to be no deterrent. However, Keith and WCO Paul Henery now firmly had this man in their sights and pursued every scrap of information. In 1999 another warrant recovered more records – he had clearly started collecting again but this time not enough to get him into court. Finally in 2000, a collection of over 1300 eggs was found at the address of an associate. Not his entire collection but included 52 eggs from Schedule 1 species.
Whilst a file was prepared for court, finally on the 30 January 2001 the law changed and the option of custodial sentences became available in England and Wales. This was introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) and the RSPB had lobbied heavily for the introduction of stronger sentencing options to deal with serious offences and persistent offenders.
Our Newcastle man went to court four months after the law change, but as the offences took place in 2000, the Magistrates could not use them! So conviction number four resulted in a fine of £1900. Was he going to stop? - just four weeks later we got the answer when another warrant executed at his home found seven recently taken eggs, including three goshawk eggs from Wales. And so on the 16 August 2001 it finally came to pass – conviction number five, relating to just seven eggs, resulted in a four-month jail sentence. At last, the court was able to give a meaningful sentence and a marker had been set. This was a fitting reward for the sheer persistence of Keith and PC Henery since 1996.
In 2001 the first egg thief was jailed following changes to the law
I confess I also wanted in on the action. In the first blog I recounted how two men from Merseyside had taken osprey eggs back in 1992 from sites myself and colleagues were trying to guard in Scotland. The identity of these two men finally came to light in 1996 and I waited patiently as snippets of information came in. Helpfully in 1999, Merseyside officer PC Andy McWilliam, now with the NWCU, got involved in wildlife crime. He was also less than impressed with antics of these two and we were hot on their trail.
In March 2002, a search warrant was executed at the home of one of the men. Unfortunately, a neighbour mistakenly thought he was out, so rather than force entry and cause unnecessary damage, attempts were made to locate him. Eventually, entry was forced and it turned out he was still inside. More importantly so was his egg collection. He was actually found in the bathroom in the frantic process of trying to flush his precious eggs and incriminating data down the toilet. Quite what was going through his mind as he desperately tried to dispose of evidence at the same time destroying what he would have seen as his life’s work is difficult to imagine. In the bathroom I could see the remains of a crushed clutch of osprey eggs were in the sink. Ironically, later examination showed these were one of the clutches he had taken in 1992. I think one or two police officers looked rather bemused when I started putting my DIY skills to good use and set about dismantling the toilet. In the U bend, along with egg shell fragments were the torn pieces of datacards. I later dried these out and laid them out like some bizarre jigsaw puzzle. These helped corroborate the other records we found at the address as to the full extent of his exploits.
Bathroom chaos in Merseyside and the eggshells and data recovered from the toilet!
In addition to the osprey eggs, I later worked out he had probably disposed of around two clutches of golden eagle, three of avocet, three of black-throated diver, five of peregrine, and around a dozen of both chough and little tern. Probably the most upsetting for this man would have been a single highly prized clutch of white-tailed eagle he had taken from Mull in 1998. A rather ignominious end for such a spectacular bird.
Despite his attempts to destroy evidence there were still plenty of intact eggs, some 355 to be precise plus fragments of around another 138 eggs as far as I could work out. Of particular interest were his prized notebooks, plus many photographs, detailing his criminal activities in the field going back to 1988. As you can imagine, I later poured through this material in great depth trying to extract any relevant information. This led us to another egg collector in the West Midlands, already with two convictions including the taking of those common scoter eggs in 1999. He finally ended up in jail, this time for taking a clutch of osprey eggs.
Our Merseyside man was arrested and interviewed by Andy and myself. In fairness he was reasonably amenable, accepting his 20 years of egg collecting and repeatedly stating said it was just an obsession he could not stop. The case progressed fairly smoothly to court, and he pleaded guilty to 13 charges. With all the eggs and his extensive records the court had an accurate picture of his reign of terror, and despite the fact this was his first conviction, in September 2002 he received a five month jail sentence.
But we weren’t finished. About two weeks later PC McWilliam chased up some information and recovered the collection of the other Merseyside miscreant, which had been stored away from his home. This second prized haul held clutches from peregrines, ospreys, choughs and many others. Amongst the osprey eggs was his first clutch taken on that fateful night back in 1992. Again there were detailed records and photographs outlining his exploits over the previous ten years. He later pleaded guilty to 11 charges, including possession of 160 eggs of Schedule 1 birds plus 658 eggs of other species. Following in the footsteps of his associate he received four months in jail. So a little over ten years since they had taken osprey eggs in the night whilst I slept just a few miles away, some sort of justice was done.
In the years that followed the courts exercised the custodial sentence in appropriate cases. The effect of this can be seen in the graph below and it appears that jail sentences have had a significant deterrent effect.
Compare this with raptor persecution. Over 160 convictions since I started, just one jail sentence actually served. Those killing birds of prey are typically serially offenders, just like egg thieves. We have received detailed reports of some gamekeepers that have apparently killed hundreds of raptors during their career. In conservation terms, there is absolutely no doubt that the activities of those persecuting raptors are immeasurably more damaging to bird populations than the work of egg thieves.
However, there is one fundamental difference which blights the ability of society to impose similar stiff sentences on the raptor killers. Egg thieves keep the evidence of their crimes which, if found, may allow a court to assess their level of offending, often over a prolonged period of many years. With raptor persecution, the evidence, namely the corpses, is invariably disposed of very quickly. As a result, the court are usually dealing with a single point in time, one shot raptor, one jar of poison, complete with usual defence mitigation that this was a one off aberration in an otherwise distinguished career.
With fines often paid by employers and job dismissals very unusual, current court sentencing imposes little real deterrent on this sector of society. At some stage the courts need to recognise the significance of these crimes and the serious conservation impacts they cause. A few more jail sentences may well make people in the gamekeeping community think a lot more carefully about what they are expected to do by their managers and employers.
As for egg thieves, well Operation Easter has been a great example of partnership working with statutory agencies receiving specialist help from RSPB, raptor workers and others along with the involvement of whole communities and widespread public support. As recent events in Norfolk demonstrate, there will no doubt always be some egg collectors out there, meaning vigilance is still needed. However, there can be no denying the huge progress from those busy days of chasing egg thieves when I started back in 1991.
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