The second of three blogs about the formation of Operation Easter – an initiative started 21 years ago to tackle the scourge of egg thieves.
Barn doors and bad guys
White-tailed eagles are big birds. Whoever first christened them as flying ‘barn doors’ probably did not expect this phrase to be so well-used to describe these magnificent birds.
But like many raptors, they have been subject to extensive human persecution. This led to extinction in Scotland: the last birds bred in 1916 and the last bird was shot a couple of years later. In 1975, an international reintroduction project started bringing young birds from Norway to Scotland. This led to the first Scottish chick being fledged a nest on the Isle of Mull in 1985. Those early years were shrouded in secrecy. However, with over 100 pairs now gracing the Scottish skies their success is widely celebrated. They make a huge contribution to wildlife tourism benefiting local communities, in places like Skye and Mull.
Flying ‘barn doors’ – the spectacular white-tailed eagle (Chris Gomersall)
Despite the attempts to keep those first breeding locations a closely-guarded secret, they soon came onto the radar of egg thieves as a potentially new and highly prized addition for their collections. Their rarity made them irresistible. In March 1995, two egg thieves from Coventry and Merseyside tried to rob a Mull nest. At that time there were just a fragile handful of pairs breeding in Scotland with just five chicks fledged the previous year. During the night-time raid, the female parent broke one of her eggs trying to defend the nest and the remaining one was left. Mull was now getting all the wrong sort of attention – more bad guys would be coming, and something needed to be done.
In 1991, PC Finlay Christine had arrived on Mull. Having started his career in Glasgow, no doubt dealing with a different type of wildlife, he was anticipating a few years' secondment. Instead he was there a while longer - until in fact he retired in 2009. Finlay was one of those larger-than-life characters, but sadly he passed away in 2012 from cancer.
In 1995, he became the WCO for the island and worked with the local community and the RSPB to set up an eagle watch programme, which still runs to this day. The support from the local community to deal with the threat of marauding Englanders was fantastic. Ferries were watched, suspicious cars and individuals all reported back to the watchful Finlay. The RSPB warden on Mull was Richard Evans, a dedicated conservationist who tragically passed away in 2016, aged just 52. He was passionate about eagles, and was integral to the watch scheme. Myself, colleagues and seconded police officers spent some time on Mull. As well as looking out for bad guys, it was also a rather special place, with otters, divers and many other birds complementing the resident eagles.
In the spring of 1996, our Coventry man returned with associates. With the island on high alert, the men were stopped with a huge arsenal of egg collecting equipment. Two of them, both with multiple previous convictions, were fined £1000 which hardly reflected the seriousness of with they were intending. But with no jail sentences available, there was no more the court could do. Whilst they were intercepted, unfortunately others slipped the net and egg thieves plundered a nest in the night - the first successful robbery of the reintroduced birds. There was public uproar. I suspect the fact that everyone in Scotland believed, quite correctly, that the culprits were English made them even less happy. Those eggs have never been recovered, though I have a good idea who has them. The Coventry man, after two failed attempts, told me he was ‘gutted’ not to have been the first person to take a clutch.
The Mull Eagle Watch still keeps a watchful eye on the island (Iain Erskine)
In 1997, WCO PC Ian Hutchison, of the then Tayside Police, was on a secondment working with my colleagues in Scotland. With a strong interest in computers, he was fascinated to see our RSPB database, the wealth of information it contained, and felt the police should be doing far more. In February 1997, the RSPB supplied details of the most active collectors and so Operation Easter was born. Tayside police and RSPB worked with police forces around the UK to keep tabs on the activities of these people. WCO Inspector Alan Stewart took up the running of the scheme, which was later passed across to the NWCU.
During 1997, two brothers from Hampshire were caught egg collecting on the Orkneys. The local Sheriff was no doubt less than impressed at the lack of sentencing options and fined them £90,000 each! This was later reduced to £6,000 on appeal, but the Sheriff had clearly made his point.
Unfortunately, our man from Coventry wasn’t to be denied and in 1998 he returned to Mull with his Merseyside associate and they took two clutches – again the island and the conservation world were in uproar. A short while later the police recovered the Coventry man’s notebooks during an unrelated enquiry for which he was later jailed. They were fascinating, but certainly not fun, reading. He had taken over 230 eggs of rare breeding birds, this included three clutches of osprey, three of golden eagle, two of red kite and even a clutch of golden oriole eggs from our RSPB Lakenheath reserve on my birthday - I was not happy! If all this was not bad enough, they confirmed the taking of white-tailed eagle eggs earlier that spring.
We had no doubt these records listed eggs he had taken since 1984 – but without the actual eggs, proving that wouldn't be easy. We needed to convince the police, the CPS and ultimately the court, that the notebooks could only mean one thing: the taking of birds’ eggs. From our database we could show many of the nesting sites had been robbed; and through Operation Easter we could put him at various locations mentioned in the notebooks because of police stop checks all around the country. I contacted these police officers and asked them to delve back into their memory banks and notebooks. We got a great response and a series of statements duly arrived.
With our man already in jail for other matters, this meant a slightly surreal experience of a prison visit with a police officer in order to interview him. I had never met this major wildlife criminal and wondered what he would be like. It wasn't exactly a Stanley-Livingstone moment. As he arrived, I thought he looked a beaten man. For a man who reveled in travelling around the country in pursuit of rare birds, confinement no doubt came as something of a shock. The interview was reasonably civil, but he said the notebooks were just records of eggs that he or others had seen and not taken. However, he had accepted they were his notebooks and he was charged with taking 16 clutches of eggs during 1997 and 1998, including two white-tailed eagle eggs from Mull. Pleading guilty for his seventh, and final, conviction he was fined £3500. A reasonable fine, but hardly a reflection of the damage he had wrought for more than a decade. This was yet another clear indication that the law was simply not fit to deal with serial wildlife criminals.
The Coventry man’s egg collection was recovered a few years later, white-tailed eagle eggs front and centre (Guy Shorrock RSPB)
Though the Mull eagle watch scheme was in full swing, the lure of eagle eggs was still too much for some. In November 1998, two eggs thieves from Manchester arrived on Mull. One was already facing trial for eggs seized at his home a few months earlier, and the other already had two previous convictions. Claiming to be BBC researchers, they started asking questions in a local pub about eagles and produced a map marked with nest sites. English people asking questions on Mull about eagles? Well, that would have taken about five minutes to get around the entire island. Helpfully, Richard Evans was also in the pub, so their chances of a secret reconnaissance trip disappeared almost instantly. Warrants were executed at their homes, and whilst nothing particularly incriminating was found, at one address I noted with interest a very expensive pair of Bausch and Lomb binoculars. Egg thieves typically have fairly cheap binoculars, partly because they are not proper birdwatchers, but also because they might be seized and forfeited by a court.
While their intentions had been rumbled, it certainly did not seem to put them off. In March 1999, a parked car with an empty bike rack was seen on Mull. They were back – and it wasn’t a cycling holiday! Richard Evans was quickly on the scene to join PC Finlay and his colleague at the bottom of a glen where a pair of white-tailed eagles was nesting. A parent bird was flying around suggesting disturbance was happening. The trio made their way up the glen and found two bicycles in the edge of the nest wood from which the two Manchester men eventually emerged, Richard immediately recognising our ‘BBC researchers’. They were promptly arrested, and a search of their vehicle found climbing equipment, a GPS, a mirror on an extendable aerial (for examining nests), bolt cutters (no doubts for any nest protection razor wire) and a rather expensive pair of Bausch and Lomb binoculars.
The late WCO PC Finlay Christine with a haul of equipment from egg thieves caught on Mull (Guy Shorrock RSPB).
When I heard the news, I got on the phone to Finlay. The first question I asked was about the binoculars and Finlay replied with a laugh that they had already been seized, and subject to an anticipated conviction, they had already been earmarked for the Mull Eagle Watch project. During interview one of the men explained they were just on holiday taking photographs. PC Christine posed the cunning question, “Well then, can you tell me where your camera is?”. This apparently provoked a long pause.
Richard Evans returned to the wood with a colleague. Richard was literally on his hands and knees when he came to a rather suspicious lump covered in pine needles. There was a plastic bag containing the missing camera, but rather more sinister was a hammer, six-inch nails and box with padding material. The nails were undoubtedly to be knocked into the nest tree to allow it to be climbed and padding for holding their intended prize. Following interview, they were also relieved of their bikes and their car and escorted off the island.
Whilst we all waited for the court appearance, other egg collectors kept heading for Scotland. My colleague David Dick had been the main driving force in Scotland for over a decade when it came to tackling egg thieves, and was sharp as a tack in the field. In June 1999, he received a wee snippet of information about egg thieves possibly targeting common scoters, a bird decidedly uncommon in Scotland. He reacted quickly and made his way with a police officer to a breeding loch. As usual his instincts were spot on, and in the far distance were two men out on the loch in small inflatable dinghies. They walked in and intercepted two West Midlands men leaving the area – complete with 21 common scoter and eight red-breasted merganser eggs. These two already had three convictions between them. So that was two really good Operation Easter successes in the space of just a few months.
In January 2000, the two Manchester men appeared in court and pleaded guilty to possession of egg-collecting equipment on Mull – equipment intended to be used against one of our rarest birds. They were fined just £750 each. In March that year, the two men from the West Midlands pleaded guilty to three charges relating to the taking of the 29 duck eggs. Whilst giving them a more respectable fine of £2000 each, the Sheriff commented “Unless prison is an option I do not think you will be much discouraged”. He was not wrong.
Patience was clearly wearing thin with marauding English egg thieves but there was simply no option of a more meaningful custodial sentence – that was soon about to change!
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654