The RSPB Investigations team assists the statutory agencies to investigate crimes against wild birds in the UK.
Staff are based at the UK headquarters, Scottish headquarters and the Northern England Regional Office.
This blog will be used to keep you informed on key issues and court case results on a regular basis, but for legal reasons, we may only be able to report on certain aspects of our work.
If you witness a crime against a wild bird and wish to report this to the RSPB, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or use the online form at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reportacrime
He boarded the tube carrying a small pizza box - a rather normal looking man in the midst of east London. He was wearing dark, almost military clothing and carrying a small shoulder bag.
The train sped through the city, the suburbs and out in to rural estuary Essex. By now he was fidgety but only to trained eyes. As he left the train at Leigh-on-Sea, darkness was falling. He had meticulously planned it to be like that: he needed the darkness, it preserved his obsession.
Walking briskly, he was at his target in minutes. He entered the wooden bird hide but to his horror he was not alone - two males with binoculars, flasks and a duty. They were undoubtedly 'protectionists', guarding the very jewels he had come to take.
Through the open windows there in the gloom only 30 feet away sat an avocet incubating four precious eggs. But sadly from that moment these four eggs were only destined to become statistics. He left the hide and hid up like a fugitive.
An hour later the voluntary wardens had left, their duties fulfilled. It was black, but suddenly the night air was filled with the twin distress calls of avocets and humanity. A dark human figure lurched in to the mud and water; it was all rather easy despite the injury caused by hidden metal debris.
Within minutes the lagoon was quiet, the calm returned but three pairs of avocets had now lost a total of 12 eggs. Back on the tube, eggs nestled in the pizza box, the now wet but triumphant Matthew Gonshaw blended back in with society once more. Safe in his flat, he performed the last rites, blowing the embryos from the shells, documenting his raid and hiding the eggs under a set of drawers.
Following intelligence from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, almost two months later, in the very same flat, officers from the MET Police Wildlife Crime Unit and RSPB Investigations found the avocet eggs amongst 700 other eggs - golden eagles, ospreys and red kites to name but a few.
There was no celebration; the flat screamed with the silent calls of ghosts. An eerie place, uncomfortable for most.
Gonshaw was jailed for six months for these offences in December 2011 but showed no sign of remorse - quite the contrary.
This was his fifth conviction, his fourth spell in prison and the deterrents he had faced really didn't outweigh his obsession for taking eggs. Not just any old eggs but those of truly amazing birds.
After reading his diaries and interviewing the man, one particular aspect of his obsession stood out streets above the rest. He was driven by his annual visits to remote parts of Scotland, where he could test his survival skills, obtain freedom and plunder the rarest of the rare. This was his nirvana, his place of power and ultimately his Achilles heel.
A meeting of minds between the MET Police, CPS and RSPB Investigations resulted in a new approach, fresh thinking and strong purposeful action. The collective outrage of nest protection volunteers, conservation staff and wildlife police needed to be harnessed in a way to make it impossible for a court not to act. Ten amazing people put pen to paper and Stepped Up for Nature.
Late last Friday, Matthew Gonshaw became the first ever person to receive an ASBO for crimes against nature. He was banned from leaving England to visit Scotland between 1 February and 31 August for TEN YEARS.
In addition he also had seven other conditions imposed, including being banned from all RSPB and Wildlife Trust land as well as the obvious - not to take or possess wild bird eggs.
If he doesn't stop he can now be brought back to court for breaching the ASBO and that offence carries a maximum of up to five years in prison and a £20,000 fine.
Hopefully, no longer will ospreys and golden eagles be robbed by him, no longer will volunteer wardens feel despair when he has taken their eggs and no longer will the authorities be powerless.
Let's be hopeful that those 12 avocet eggs have saved thousands of other birds - that's a much more positive statistic for Saving Nature.
For over 20 years I’ve dealt with the dirty world of bird of prey persecution offences. In addition to dealing with a depressing catalogue of magnificent birds which have been shot, trapped and poisoned it has also provided an insight into why this problem won’t go away.
In the last couple of decades there has been much to celebrate with increases in buzzards and marsh harriers and successful re-introductions of red kites and white-tailed eagles. However, in the uplands of northern England and Scotland, where land is managed for red grouse shooting, the situation remains depressingly bleak. Species like golden eagles and hen harriers continue to be badly affected by illegal persecution. Last year a perilous four pairs of hen harriers bred in England, despite habitat for over 300.
My job is to try to get those persecuting raptors into court. Whilst very difficult crimes to investigate, the RSPB have been instrumental in many convictions. This has understandably made us rather unpopular with the criminal element within the shooting industry.
Just this month gamekeeper Glenn Brown from the High Peak Estate in Derbyshire lost his appeal at Derby Crown Court. This followed a conviction for the illegal use of a cage trap baited with a live pigeon (a ‘hawk trap’) after he was covertly filmed - see recent blog posts on the court case and appeal for all the details. His failed appeal brought his costs to an eye watering £17,000, though the defence bill for employing a QC would no doubt have already dwarfed that figure. It seems somewhat unlikely that Mr Brown will be covering these bills and is a sign of the resources available to fight these cases.
Held to account
So another gamekeeper in the dock, now over one hundred since 1990 for raptor persecution related crimes. Of those how many of their employers or managers have been held to account? – well none that I’m aware of. In many ways the gamekeeper is something of a fall guy. The gamekeeper is man who does the dirty work whilst those in charge keep their heads well and truly down. If caught, he will get a good defence, keep his job and probably have his fine paid. In return, he keeps those in charge out of the frame.
Gamekeepers themselves have told me that raptor persecution on upland grouse estates is routine and that it is something they are expected to do if they want to keep their jobs. I have no doubt it is the shooting industry itself, the managers and employers who run these wealthy shooting estates, who are at the root of this pernicious problem.
Much of the shooting world remains in denial about the extent of raptor persecution. It is this lack of accountability for those running the show which means catching a few gamekeepers every year has limited deterrent effect. Encouragingly, Scotland has taken a step forward and introduced new legislation and an offence of vicarious liability. This seeks to make managers and employers more accountable for the criminal actions of their staff – this has to be a step in the right direction.
What can you do to help?
An e-petition is currently running to try to persuade the government to adopt similar legislation in England. Please step up for nature and take just a moment and to sign the vicarious liability e-petition to add your support.
Despite over 50 years of legal protection there seem to be little sign of the shooting industry getting its house in order. It is about time those crouched behind the parapet are finally made to stand up and be held to account for the damage being inflicted on our countryside.