Thursday, 24 March 2016


Black-necked grebe - a species whose nest was frequently plundered by one unscrupulous collector (Photo by Andreas Trepte  via Wikimedia Commons)

The strange world of egg-collectors came under the spotlight when senior RSPB investigations officer Mark Thomas gave an illustrated talk to the 2016 annual meeting of the Lincolnshire Bird Club.

Obsessive by temperament, these individuals inevitably tend to be repeat offenders, racking up a string of convictions which most likely lead to  fines and occasionally even prison sentences.

Typically, they are white, aged 25 to 55 and, with a few exceptions, they work in manual trades such as building or painting and decorating. Some are unemployed and live on state benefit.

They tend to be bird experts but only within the  narrow range  of species' nesting habitats, when they breed and the size and appearance of their clutches.

There are reckoned to be about 25 currently active hardcore egg-collectors in the UK (many live in the West Midlands). None of them is a woman. Indeed, no female collector has ever been prosecuted.

Britain's most infamous collector used to be Colin Watson who, on May 24, 2006, died aged 63 from injuries sustained when he fell 39ft from a larch tree branch on  which he had been watching the nesting activity of sparrowhawks.

A prolific offender, he was once arrested  as he was apparently attempting to saw down an osprey-nesting tree on Speyside with a chainsaw.

That badge of dishonour has since passed from Watson  to a  Londoner who perhaps should not be named given that he is still living and his convictions are now spent.

His  exploits  included travelling to the Inner  Hebrides  to track down the nests of golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, Manx shearwaters and other uncommon species.

When Mark, accompanied by a police officer, raided this individual's flat, the living room was devoid of furniture, with only a record player in one corner of the room plus a case full of eggs.

On another occasion, eggs were discovered in a secret section of the frame of his bed.

One of the most notable cases  of recent years involved a  man who kept no fewer than 7,715 eggs in polysytrene  fish boxes at his home in Grimsby.

Many were of uncommon UK breeders such as black-necked grebe and chough, but some were of exotic overseas species, suggesting he had contacts beyond the UK, possibly in Malta.

Because they are often meticulous in recording their activities in diaries, notebooks and photographs, collectors are inadvertently providing the evidence  that may eventually lead to  their conviction at a magistrates' court.

Mark prompted chuckles from his audience when he noted that one culprit had added a memo to himself on one page of a notebook - "must get a girlfriend".

Once a conviction has been secured, the RSPB invariably seeks from the magistrates a forfeiture of the eggs. These are usually taken to the Natural History Museum's premises at Tring in Hetfordshire where they are stored behind the scenes - not in any prominent position lest they inadvertently provide the collector with some kind of  accolade for his misdemeanours.

Sometimes it seems the  confiscation is a greater penalty to the culprit  than the fine or prison sentence. After all, it may have taken  30 years to build a collection.

"Collectors have a bizarre psyche,"said Mark. "Most times  they respond to detection with verbals - but I have known some  to break down in tears." 

During his hour-long presentation at Horncastle's Admiral Rodney Hotel, Mark also described the RSPB's seemingly endless quest to secure convictions against those gamekeepers who illegally slaughter - through shooting, poison or other means - buzzards, goshawks and other raptors.

Since 1990, some 69 per cent of bird crime convictions have been gamekeeper-related, with one particular "black hole" (to use the RSPB's own jargon) being the Peak District - so much so that it has prompted  the organisation to publish a leaflet Peak Malpractice outlining the scale of the problem.

Often working unsocial hours, including pre-dawn, Mark (43) and his colleagues have the resourcefulness of tabloid journalists in their quest both to uncover wrongdoing and to ensure that it does not go unpunished. They are as tenacious as Jack Russell terriers.

The onset of Twitter and other social media has  worked to their advantage. Not only can it lead to tip-offs but it mobilises a sense of public outrage about wildlife crime - especially if the culprits are allowed to get away with their crimes or let off with what amounts to no more than a slap on the wrist.

Mark showed several covertly-recorded videos, including one of an unscrupulous gamekeeper baiting a trap with a pigeon in order to coax goshawks. Another more sickening sequence of footage featured two trapped buzzards being bludgeoned, then apparently having their throats slit or being decapitated (or both).

The use of poison - for instance, a concentrate of an agrichemical  used by farmers to protect potato crops from pests such as eelworm - can be more hazardous than shooting because there is a risk that an unsuspecting  child or pet dog might come into contact with it. "Some of these chemicals can have knock-out potential," said Mark.

Gamekeepers can prove harder to convict than egg-collectors. Their wealthy landowning employers may  engage hugely expensive defence barristers to fight their corner.

The RSPB investigator  described one unusual case in which an investigation took an unexpected turn when he and a police officer sought admission from its owner to a locked barn within which it was thought there might be  poison or other raptor-killing paraphernalia.

Told by the officer to release the padlock, the suspect  said: "If  I open this I go to jail."

In response, Mark could not prevent himself from interrupting: "Seems like a fair deal to me."

To the surprise of the two investigators, the premises proved not to be a storehouse of hawk-slaughtering equipment but of  hundreds of cannabis plants in various states of growth.

During his talk, the RSPB man also had some anecdotes based on his many court experiences.

On one cross examination, a barrister asked him why, if raptors were being persecuted on a particular moor, did they not simply fly somewhere else.

Mark  retorted: "On that basis, why don't  pheasants fly to  other sites when they're being shot at? The game-shooting industry wouldn't last past its first day."

Barrister: "Aren't birds of prey more intelligent than pheasants?"

Mark: "You tell me - are they?"

The RSPB man made reference to his ex-boss, Mark Avery, the charity's former conservation director who is now a freelance consultant and frenetic campaigner against persecution of hen harriers on grouse moors.

Said Mark: "Now that he is no longer on the staff of the RSPB, he is freer to speak out."

This begged the question (which no one at the meeting asked): "Is  the RSPB sometimes persuaded to back off certain prosecutions after being leaned on by those in high places?"

At its Sandy HQ, the RSPB has some 600 staff of whom 14 work in the investigation unit headed by Rob Elliot.

It may sound like glamorous work, but much of it is also drudgery. According to Mark, it can also be " frustrating" - for instance because of delays in the court process or  because the penalties are often pitifully light.

"But our unit is  committed to combatting wildlife crime,"he insisted. "With the help and support of  the public, it's a war we can win."

After seven years' service, RSPB staff are entitled to a sabbatical month, so long as it is spent on conservation-related activities.

Mark took  his in Mongolia where he recorded species and also  sought to encourage local children to study the indidigenous bird life, setting up a 'scope for their benefit.

"They weren't the slightest interested in the birds," he said ruefully. "They only wanted to look at the horses."

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