What value you would put on a fantastic bird like a white-tailed eagle? 

I suspect many would simply say priceless.  At the other extreme, a few misguided individuals may be all too eager to see these birds, and other similar species, removed off the face of our landscape.  I believe most people can appreciate the importance of protecting our environment, whether it be for the food, water, air and resources it provides, or purely for its aesthetic and intrinsic value and benefits for wildlife tourism and employment.

However, putting a financial value on a free living animal or a piece of habitat would appear to be no easy thing.  However, in Finland it appears they have started to look at the value of the environment to society and introduced a form of environmental compensation legislation.  So the value of white-tailed eagle has been assessed as worth 6,400 euros.  Consequently the killing of this bird, or taking of its eggs, could make an individual liable to compensate society for the damage caused.  I am not entirely convinced about assigning values in this manner, but I suspect it certainly focuses the mind of some people about the environmental crimes they may be considering to commit.

In 2009, I assisted the UK authorities with the start of an egg collecting enquiry that revealed a whole network of people involved in the illegal trading of birds’ eggs.  Some of these were egg thieves themselves, others happy to build their own collections from the criminal endeavours of such people.  Two men were convicted in the UK, both receiving suspended jail sentences.  The trading web, spread through the internet, reached to the US, Australia and also a little closer to home in Sweden.  Following information from the UK authorities, over 6,000 birds’ eggs were seized and in January 2014 three men in Sweden were sentenced for their part in this strange network of criminals.  One received a jail term of a year, the others substantial fines - see here.

The Swedish authorities were assisted by experienced ornithologists, in the same way RSPB have long assisted the UK authorities.  Their knowledge helped bring a further individual in Finland in to the limelight and this led to another seizure of over 9000 birds’ eggs.  The Finnish authorities were supported in their enquiries by the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit.


Birds ' eggs and other items seized in Finland in the autumn of 2011

So after another long investigation and trial, on 20 February 2015 a Finnish man was convicted on charges relating to over 5,000 eggs.  He too received a jail term of a year.  However, it was the environmental compensation penalty of an eye-watering 250,000 euros that took centre stage.  Apparently the prosecutor had asked for over twice this sum.  As a business man, the defendant presumably has the assets to cover this, however it is perhaps no surprise he has since appealed.  Whatever, the merits of the Finnish approach, I believe there is no doubt that there is a need in all societies to find some mechanism to impress upon those committing environmental damage that their actions will not be tolerated and they will be held accountable.

Here in the UK there are huge areas of the uplands, where, due to the selfish hands of a relative few, the landscape remains deprived of viable populations of some of our most spectacular and iconic birds of prey.  Catching a few of the responsible individuals every year, usually local gamekeepers, with the typical outcome of a modest fine has, it seems, for decades done little to affect the mindset of their often wealthy employers.

However, in January this year Aberdeenshire gamekeeper George Mutch became the first person to receive actual custody for crimes against birds of prey.  A tragedy for him as an individual, but this is something that has unfortunately been coming as the catalogue of incidents has continued and public outcry has increased.  The managers and employers within the shooting industry who have been involved with these crimes appear to have ignored the signs; perhaps the chances of being held personally accountable were considered so low and they were aware that it was far more likely a member of staff would be the one to take the fall.  This conviction may at least last start to focus the minds of some individuals who have until now felt relatively secure behind the financial resources and status of their employers.  Perhaps some may start to question what their paymasters would ask of them.  I struggle to believe loyalty extends as far as a jail cell.

I suspect even more relevant is that a month earlier in December 2014, Scotland saw the first conviction for an employer being held vicariously liable for a member of his staff who committed crimes against raptors.   It has been disappointing that there seems to be a distinct lack of appetite to bring in comparable legislation in other parts of the UK.  The incident also led to the landowner losing around £66,000 of agricultural subsidies, far more than any financial penalty likely to be imposed by a court.   Like many, I hope these parallel landmark events will now start to usher in a new era of accountability across the Scottish countryside.   The RSPB also believe a registration process for driven grouse shooting, where the most serious problems lie, should also be considered.  This could mean that crimes against raptors leading to the loss of the ability to run a shooting business for certain periods.  Such an approach to focus the minds of errant sporting estates would help build on the recent momentum and promote good practice and responsibility.

Ultimately, only time will tell whether the priceless shadow of the eagle will fall more frequently across our land.