Last week saw the conviction of egg collector James North from Devon. This was a timely reminder that this spring marks 21 years since the launch of Operation Easter, an intelligence-led operation to target the UK’s egg thieves. At the start it was run jointly by Tayside Police and RSPB, with the NWCU later picking up the baton. In a series of three blogs, I’ll be reflecting on the development of Operation Easter, its successes helping to bring about important changes in the law, and the situation today.

This first blog gives a little backstory to the problem of egg-collecting.

First impressions

I joined RSPB in 1991 after more than seven busy years with the police. One of my strongest memories from that early period was my introduction to the bizarre world of egg collectors, or ‘egg thieves’ as we preferred to call them. There were plenty about in those days, and they were giving regular unwanted attention to species like red kites and ospreys, both of which had fragile recovering populations with less than 100 breeding pairs. Their pointless pursuit of egg shells, for their own personal gratification, made them universally unpopular and strenuous efforts were being made by ourselves, police, raptor workers, landowners and local communities to try and give rare breeding birds some protection from egg thieves during the breeding season.

Egg thieves can devote most of their life to building up extensive collections (Guy Shorrock)

Each spring it seemed the phone was ringing every weekend with calls from around the country, particularly Scotland, about the sightings of possible suspects and their vehicles or the sad news that yet another nest had been raided. We were on high alert from as early as February, when ravens start to breed, followed by golden eagles though to late spring when divers and waders lay. My colleagues in Scotland had a great relationship with the police, many of whom I suspect regarded catching an English egg collector as one of the pinnacles of their career!

By the time I left the police, our information on the activities of local suspects consisted mostly of a variety of scribbled entries on a large card index system. We didn’t even have a computer in the office, so when I arrived at the RSPB and was presented with my own PC, I was fascinated to see their wildlife crime database – a much-updated version of which we use today as the backbone to our Investigations work. Sightings of egg thieves and nest robberies were diligently recorded, allowing us to join dots and work out which species and nesting sites might be most at risk, and where some of our ‘most wanted’ might be heading. The concept of 'intelligence led policing' came to the fore in the 1990s, however RSPB Investigations had already been applying this principle for many years before I started. As such, because of this work, RSPB Investigations were undoubtedly the sworn enemy of the egg thieves.

Golden eagles have been a key target for egg thieves since Victorian times (Guy Shorrock)

Currently in the system, we have around 1300 confirmed nest robberies of Schedule 1 species, including 119 ospreys, 59 golden eagles, six white-tailed eagles, 51 red kites, 37 black-throated diver, 41 chough, 23 Slavonian grebe and 151 little terns to name a few. For many species we will only be aware of a small proportion of those actually taken.

Ospreys – up close and personal

When I started egg thieves were a serious problem for ospreys. On one occasion, the notorious late Colin Watson and his colleagues took five clutches in a 24-hour period. Consequently, in May 1992, I joined my colleagues Dave Dick and Keith Morton, plus a few volunteers, to try and help watch several osprey nests in Perthshire. Four nests had been raided in 1991 and we anticipated further problems. As a Schedule 1 species, a government licence is required to visit these nests. Consequently, I had never been anywhere near an osprey nest, or any other rare breeding bird for that matter. But assisted by local raptor worker Keith Brockie showing the way in his wellingtons (and having that all-important license), I was able to clamber up behind him to the top of a couple of pine trees to inspect the contents of large stick nests to see if birds had laid. In one of the nests, I saw what egg thieves raved about so wildly: three large eggs splashed with reddish and brown markings. Whatever the aesthetic arguments about their appearance, the concept of somebody preferring to have dead calcium shells in a drawer over the spectacle of an osprey wheeling over the Scottish countryside remains mind-boggling.

There were several nests within a few miles of each other, but giving these meaningful protection was very difficult. To properly guard just one nest requires considerable manpower. Every year the RSPB organises the guarding of the high-profile osprey nest at the Loch Garten. This is run like a military operation and requires large numbers of volunteers. Our efforts were always going to be something of a compromise, so we decided to concentrate mainly on the weekend period when egg thieves were most likely to arrive. A local landowner had kindly allowed us the use of a bothy. Though it had seen better days and was fairly basic, it was a welcome refuge after a day in the wind and rain. It was also in a lovely spot by a loch and at first light the sound of lekking black grouse bubbled across the water. Our routine involved getting up before dawn, then spending the day checking the nest sites, making sure the ospreys were incubating normally, and watching from vantage points to see if any suspicious-looking individuals turned up.

My younger self waiting for osprey egg thieves back in 1992 - our bothy in the background (Guy Shorrock)

Having left mid-week to deal with other work, we returned on the Thursday ready to cover the weekend period. What we didn’t know was that, in the very early hours of that day, two osprey clutches had been taken by a Merseyside egg collector who was completely unknown to us at that time. He had already taken four osprey clutches in 1991.

My notebook for Friday 8 May simply said: ‘4.30 start. Area checked during day. Weather generally horrendous with driving snow and blizzards’. That evening were getting ready for a few hours’ sleep in our bothy in preparation for the weekend. Little did we know that in the darkness our unknown egg thief was back, now with an accomplice. The pair made their way along a track on the other side of the loch and took another clutch in the middle of the night.

When, in 2002, we finally caught up with our two men, from Merseyside, search warrants recovered extensive egg collections plus detailed diaries, notes and photographs. Both men were jailed. In the diary of one of the men I noted with interest the entry for the Friday 8 May 1992 ‘We reached Loch (name) where I changed into my camouflaged waterproofs. A light could be seen on inside Loch (name) Lodge with a vehicle parked outside. This is the warden’s house, so we quietly walked on by’. You guessed it – the warden’s lodge was in fact our bothy, where we were all settling in for the night. The two of them would have passed within 300 metres of our doorstep.

Five of ten osprey clutches recovered from the two Merseyside men in 2002 (Guy Shorrock)

During the weekend, we could see something wasn’t right by the birds’ behaviour. I clambered up a couple of Scots pines and a very tall Douglas fir to find only empty nests. It was bad enough for us, but quite how it felt for raptor workers like Keith Brockie, who spent hundreds of hours in his own time trying to monitor and protect these birds, and then having to suffer this scenario each spring is hard to imagine. Whether it was due to this early experience I don't know, but osprey robberies became a bit of a pet subject, and I have spent a great deal of time chasing down osprey eggs thieves and helping the police to recover numerous clutches. Nearly all these can now be found in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, each clutch with its own sad story to tell, but at least available for any future scientific study.

Despite ten or more convictions each year during the 1990s, it was clear that more work was still needed when it came to tackling egg thieves.

Next time… Operation Easter: hatching a plan!