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.
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Finnish : Munavaras
English: Egg thief
A conviction earlier today (here) of three egg collectors in Sweden, one of whom was jailed for a year, has highlighted yet again that it is not just the UK who has problems with this peculiar type of criminal. When I started at the RSPB back in 1992, I came into contact for the first time with the strange world of egg collectors. At that time there was a general impression this was a peculiarly ‘British’ thing, and this sort of eccentric criminality was not really a problem outside the UK. Since that time, it has become clear we are not alone with these types of environmental vandals. The term ‘egg collectors’ sounds fairly passive and it is true to say there are individuals who do not actually physically take birds’ eggs from the wild but acquire eggs taken by others. Some of these people possess entirely legal old collections, others are less discerning and may have illegally held eggs as well. I think it was my former colleague Dave Dick in Scotland who started to promote the term ‘egg thief’ in order to identify those individuals actively taking eggs from the wild. The taking of birds’ eggs is not theft in the strict legal sense, but I think few would argue it is a theft from nature, and I would suggest from society as a whole.
In 1999, the German Authorities contacted us for some advice about a suspected ‘egg thief’ they were investigating. We gave them some advice about what to look for, how to catalogue collections. This was the start of a rather large snowball – having raided one individual and found his egg collection, they also found details of several associates. These were raided and numerous more collections were found - in total around 90,000 eggs were seized! The prospect of a ring of UK egg thieves all having their own collections at their home addresses would be remote to say the least, as most have learned, often from bitter experience, that a ‘safe house’ is needed if they wanted to keep hold of their precious booty. The German authorities simply did not have these people, or indeed this type of criminality, on their radar. We have had a long relationship with a very helpful German official working in wildlife crime, and a visit was arranged. Myself and a colleague arrived at some fairly drab government concrete buildings in the former East Germany; though a flock of waxwings outside helped brighten the scene.
Some of the 90,000 eggs seized in Germany in 1999
As you might expect, German efficiency had been applied, and a whole team of biologists and enforcement officials had been involved in cataloguing the huge number of eggs. We sat as the pleasantries were exchanged, with our German friend doing the translation. On the table were printed off very long excel spreadsheets cataloguing the various collections. The working of police and government agencies has existed for decades in the UK, however it seemed the German authorities were initially a little bemused as to why we were there. Whilst international negotiations continued, I started flicking through the spreadsheets, and noticed at various places a comment ‘Jahre in rot’ – from my single year of German at school I knew this meant ‘Year in red’. I quickly started cross referencing a few species on the different spreadsheets and saw eggs taken from the same place had the same day and month, but with a different year. I quietly interjected into the ongoing conversation that I thought the entries in red were false dates. One of the German biologists immediately looked at me in a very curious manner and stated “How do you know zis?” It turned out they had already reached the same conclusions. It appeared some of the egg thieves had gone on trips abroad together to take eggs and decided to create false data to make the eggs appear old and therefore lawfully held. Rather entertainingly, one had subtracted 20 years and another 30 – which showed up very quickly once all the data was entered on a computer! Anyway, I think my remark probably helped break the ice a little and showed we at least understood what they were dealing with. We did indeed get the full guided tours with cabinet upon cabinet of eggs plus taxidermy, birds traps and other items which had been seized. Numerous individuals were later convicted, and interestingly it appeared that some eggs had been supplied by Scandinavian collectors.
So egg collecting is a strange crime, but where does the trading in eggs fit into all this. We know collections are sometimes sold when egg thieves pass them on late in life, but generally money has not been the motivation for these people. Historically, there were a number of people and auction houses involved in the sale of birds’ eggs to collectors. However, the Protection of Birds Act 1954 made it illegal to sell birds’ eggs and that seemed to pretty much end this business. However, the Internet and modern electronic communication does seem to have rekindled a little of this type of trade.
In 2009, I became involved at the start of a very long trail dealing with a number of people in the UK involved with the trade in birds’ eggs. This was mainly by swapping, but in some cases cash purchases were also taking place. This was part of a ring involving people as far afield as the US, Australia and Sweden. Two men, one from County Durham and another from Inverness were convicted, as detailed in a previous blog. These two were primarily collectors and traders rather than egg thieves. However, some of their international contacts were clearly active egg thieves. One of their associates from Scotland was in direct contact with individuals in Sweden. From various emails and photographs that had been seized, they seemed to me to be fairly hard-core egg thieves. It appeared that eggs from Sweden were obtained by the associate in Scotland, and some of which were passed to the two men ultimately convicted. I prepared some intelligence reports which the UK authorities passed to Sweden. As a result three Swedish men were raided in 2010 and around 6,600 eggs were seized, leading to the recent convictions. Interestingly, this enquiry identified a further individual in Finland and a further 10,000 eggs were seized. This case is still ongoing.
Swedish egg thieves taking gull eggs
These crane eggs found in Scotland in 2009 had been taken from the wild in 2002 & 2003
One of the crane clutches found in Scotland photographed by an egg thief in a nest in Sweden in 2003 prior to being taken
Enquiries in Sweden also found a large number of photographs of eggs in nests before they were taken. From these, it was possible to match a clutch of black-throated diver eggs found in County Durham as having been taken from Sweden in 2007; and two clutches of crane eggs seized from the associate in Scotland, had been taken in Sweden in 2002 and 2003. Hopefully, these recent cases will encourage this new breed of egg traders to think twice before swapping or selling their ill-gotten gains. The activities of egg thieves seems encouragingly to be on the decline in the UK, probably mainly due to the introduction of jail sentences in 2001 plus increased police enforcement action. How many more egg thieves are at large in other countries remains unknown but I suspect more will come out of the woodwork.
These black-throated diver eggs found in County Durham in 2009 had been taken in Sweden in 2007
Just heard two Norwegian egg theives were in court yesterday for taking two white-tailed eagle eggs from an island on the west coast on Norway in 2012. One got a 21 day suspended sentence, the other (who had denied the offence) got 45 days in jail!