On 3 May 2018, Jason North pleaded guilty at Plymouth Magistrates to eight charges of disturbing rare breeding birds (golden eagle, osprey, peregrine falcon and little-ringed plover) in Devon and Highland, Scotland and the taking of three osprey eggs from Scotland. All offences occurred during the 2016 breeding season. North received six weeks jail on each charge (to run concurrently) suspended for a year. He was also fined £665 for taking the osprey eggs and other costs of £865. The court also put him on a ten-week curfew confining him to his home between 9pm and 6am. Books, maps and some climbing hardware were also confiscated.

This spring marks 21 years since the start of Operation Easter, an initiative originally set up by RSPB and Tayside Police to tackle egg collecting, and now overseen by the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). Encouragingly, during this period, these sorts of prosecutions have become increasingly rare and it appears egg collecting is well and truly on the decline. The introduction of custodial sentences in 2001 in England and Wales, and 2004 in Scotland, was almost certainly the key catalyst for change. Hardened egg collectors, often with multiple convictions for taking and possession eggs of the UK’s rarest birds, had previously treated any court fines as a price worth paying to continue their ‘hobby’. The threat of a term in jail appears to have had the desired impact.

It’s not over though, and there are still egg thieves out there and every now and then a new one suddenly comes out the woodwork. This latest case being a prime example.

In December 2016, following work by Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO) PC Josh Marshall, a warrant was executed at the home of North supported by RSPB Investigations and the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). A large selection of specialist books on birds and eggs suggested a rather unhealthy interest in rare breeding birds listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The intentional or reckless disturbance of these birds during the breeding season is unlawful and a government licence is needed to visit such nest sites - something North had never had.

Diaries, maps and handwritten notes were seized along with his computer. It was the contents of his iMac that proved to be his downfall. These days, computers seized by the police usually sit in a queue until they can be forensically examined. So, it was a good while later, in 2017, when hundreds of photographs of eggs and nests plus numerous video clips were uncovered. PC Marshall, a keen ornithologist himself, painstakingly went through these to build up a picture of what had been taking place and the large number of nests North had been visiting.

North’s computer held many photographs of peregrine eggs, including this clutch at a nest site on Dartmoor in 2016

Information gathered from visiting birds’ nests sites can provide important conservation information and the BTO’s long-running ‘Nest Record Scheme’ is testament to this. However, this has to be done in a responsible way, and a licence is required to visit nests of Schedule 1 species. What North was doing formed no part of any conservation work and appeared to be purely for his own interests. Some of the video clips showed obvious disturbance; with one showing an incubating peregrine being deliberately flushed off the nest.

Video clip of flushed peregrine (click to watch)

It was clear from all the material that Devon and Scotland were his main stomping grounds. In Devon, there were multiple visits to the nest sites of peregrine falcon and little-ringed plover; in northern Scotland he was clearly visiting golden eagles and ospreys. However, this examination suggested that in addition to all these nest visits, something far more sinister was taking place. Many photographs had GPS co-ordinates, so exact nest sites could be determined. With support from RSPB and BTO, a team of people was assembled to provide valuable evidence about the breeding sites in Devon and Scotland and the breeding biology of the birds. These included people who had helpfully been monitoring local nest sites, from experienced ornithologists to local enthusiasts, plus species experts. In Devon, a person fitting North’s description and his vehicle had been seen in suspicious circumstances near a peregrine nest site and the details emailed to the police. This information matched perfectly with the metadata on North’s photographs and video clips. Clever, eh?

In Scotland raptor workers confirmed that two nests of golden eagle and osprey had failed in 2016 and the circumstances indicated that the eggs had been taken. Ospreys, which became extinct in the UK in 1916 because of the demand for eggs and skins for collections, eventually recolonised Scotland in the 1950s. Almost immediately they were harried by egg thieves which continued for several decades. Thankfully, things are much better and the current population of around 225 pairs continues to recover, with these incredible birds now breeding in England and Wales.

Osprey eggs photographed by North then taken from a nest in Highland Scotland during spring 2016

North’s computer yielded numerous images of eggs which had been removed from nests, including two display cases holding a range of eggs of rare breeding birds. RSPB Investigations were able to match images showing eggs of black-throated diver, stone curlew and arctic skua in nests with images showing the very same eggs in the display cases. The GPS data confirmed that a photograph of two golden eagle eggs laid out on kitchen towel had been taken in Plymouth. The location of all these eggs, however, remains unknown.

So those worst initial suspicions were confirmed. As well as many unlicensed visits to rare bird nest sites, eggs were also being taken.

With a two-year time limit on taking proceedings, the race was on to get a file of evidence ready for April 2018. With excellent support from specialist CPS wildlife prosecutor Jonathan Richards, charges were agreed and court proceedings commenced.

The outcome has put North under clear notice. If he offends during the next 12 months he will be sent to jail. During the enquiry, North was also given the opportunity to hand over any egg collection. In court, his defence stated no such collection existed and that he took the osprey eggs in a one-off moment of madness. The photographs from his computer suggest otherwise and it will be interesting to see if these eggs ever come to light.

This outcome was a real team effort, with terrific work from PC Marshall supported by a wide range of organisations and individuals.