Election day was full of choices for everyone.
Away from the political stage, Judge Armstrong at Durham Crown Court also had a choice to make. He had to decide what to do with the man in front of him: Andrew Peter Seed of Low Willington, County Durham, a man who had pleaded guilty to 17 offences relating to the smuggling, trading and keeping of birds' eggs.
The species involved included rare breeding birds from the UK plus birds of prey, parrots and egrets – species given the highest levels of international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
After deliberation, Mr Seed, no doubt breathing a heavy sigh of relief, received a nine-month jail sentence, suspended for two years. In addition, he had costs and a confiscation order totalling £3,607.03. The Judge left him in no doubt about the seriousness of the crimes and how close he had been to custody.
Quite what made Mr Seed change from a keeper of some inherited birds' eggs and casual taker of eggs of a few local common species to an international egg trader and smuggler I am not sure. It appears once he got in touch with like-minded people, he set off down a road of obsession from which there appeared to be no turning back.
Enquiries into his associates are continuing, and this is probably the largest enquiry involving the trading in birds' eggs since the start of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Like many complex wildlife cases, input was needed from a range of people and organisations including several police forces, the Crown prosecution Service, the National Wildlife Crime Unit, The Forensic Science Service and Animal Health (Defra).
As with a number of other recent wildlife cases, it again demonstrated that for all the myriad of benefits brought by the Internet and modern electronic communications, there will always be some who will exploit this for their own selfish and illegal interests to trade in protected wildlife.
Whilst loss and changes to habitat remain the major threats to many birds and other wildlife, the illegal and uncontrolled trade can have serious impacts for some species, even extinction in extreme cases. A hundred years ago, the trade in birds' eggs was a business for many people, but with improving legislation and attitudes appeared to be something that had virtually died out.
This peculiar case came to light in 2008, when a local authority told the police that a large volume of emails on Mr Seed's work computer appeared to have an unhealthy interest in birds' eggs. On the 10 February 2009, the Durham Police raided his home and found a substantial egg collection and other items.
The RSPB has extensive experience in this area, and I got a call the following day and asked if I could assist with the investigation. I have been involved in most of the major egg collecting cases during the last 18 years and was somewhat less than excited when I first saw the rather tatty and disorganised collection of nearly 2,500 birds' eggs. Professional egg collectors with neat and well-ordered collections are at least easier to deal with.
However, as I delved through the lifeless eggshells my interest quickly rose. There were plenty of eggs of Schedule 1 species, including a clutch of osprey eggs accompanied by a datacard suggesting Seed himself had taken these from a site near Aviemore back in May 2000. He later denied taking these, claiming some Walter Mitty role as a daring egg thief! It was of course the demand by collectors for eggs and skins that led to extinction of the osprey as a breeding species in the UK nearly 100 years ago.
Interestingly there were a few clutches, where I recognised the set-marks on the eggshell (this is a code used by collectors to match eggs with written information held elsewhere). These had been taken by the late notorious egg thief Colin Watson, who fell to his death from a tree inspecting a bird's nest in 2006.
There were also foreign eggs of species from the USA and Australia. Accompanying information suggested most of these had been taken in the last 30 years, with some American eggs as recently as 2007. How the US eggs had ended up in Mr Seed's collection was readily apparent, as he had retained a large amount of postal packaging in which they had arrived. To reduce suspicion, the contents had been falsely declared, including items such as Christmas tree ornaments and socks!
Mr Seed's failure to destroy such incriminating evidence was the main reason for his downfall. In particular, some 5,800 emails still languishing on his work computer were his real undoing.
Making sense of these was a considerable task but revealed that since around 2004 Mr Seed had started communicating with others with similar criminal interests. He also got involved with a number of convicted egg collectors, who were no doubt keen to encourage his developing obsession, and in turn profit by selling birds' eggs to him.
His defence claimed he had paid £6,000 to one such individual. In addition to buying eggs, Mr Seed was particularly keen on swapping them. He was clearly intent on having eggs from as many different species as possible. At times, reading the exchanges of emails rather reminded me of excited children in the playground swapping different coloured marbles.
What really struck me was that this was collecting without conscience, and he appeared to have no thought or regard to where the eggs came from, how they were obtained or the rarity of the species involved.
Whilst I believe Mr Seed was somewhat fortunate to avoid a custodial sentence, I feel he will probably have learned his lesson and I am reasonably hopeful his egg trading days are over.
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