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  • Op Easter (3 of 3) – nearly cracked!

    In the previous two blogs I outlined the background to egg collecting when I started at the RSPB in 1991 and the formation of Operation Easter in 1997. So, the police were now getting organised to tackle the threat of egg thieves – but it was clear that court sentencing options were no meaningful deterrent for persistent serial offenders. Things needed to change.

    In a rather timely reminder that egg collecting has not gone away, only yesterday the Norfolk Constabulary announced they had seized an astonishing 5000 birds' eggs from an address in Norfolk.  These are currently being unloaded at RSPB headquarters and one of my colleagues will now be devoting a significant amount of time to cataloging this collection to assist the police investigation.

                     On 22 May 2017 Norfolk Constabulary seized around 5000 eggs

    Anyway, back to this final blog and I am rewinding back to 1996. I was in the office one day checking through recent reports when I came across an incident where a member of the public had seen three people taking peregrines eggs from a site in Cumbria. The police were called and stopped them returning to their vehicle. They were well known egg collectors, but nothing incriminating was found, the eggs had presumably been hidden before reaching the roadside. That appeared to be the end of any police action, but I saw there were grounds for search warrants, so I contacted Northumbria Police to set the ball rolling. Warrants were obtained for the three addresses, and my colleague Keith Morton came down from Scotland to assist. Rather annoyingly, Keith got the best option with some 48 eggs found hidden under the loft insulation. This included a clutch of four osprey eggs – this is a very rare event and high on the wish list of any egg thief. More significantly, they also found all his records of egg taking. He had used a code system with a letter to try and disguise the year of taking. Using our database and contacting raptor workers around the UK, Keith eventually got the records into the right order. This showed a veritable crime wave of egg collecting from 1986 to 1996, but the bulk of his collection was obviously somewhere else. Our Newcastle man pleaded guilty to possession of the eggs and a number of taking offences detailed in his records. Conviction number three resulted in fine of £1000, which was going to be no deterrent. However, Keith and WCO Paul Henery now firmly had this man in their sights and pursued every scrap of information. In 1999 another warrant recovered more records – he had clearly started collecting again but this time not enough to get him into court. Finally in 2000, a collection of over 1300 eggs was found at the address of an associate. Not his entire collection but included 52 eggs from Schedule 1 species.

    Whilst a file was prepared for court, finally on the 30 January 2001 the law changed and the option of custodial sentences became available in England and Wales. This was introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) and the RSPB had lobbied heavily for the introduction of stronger sentencing options to deal with serious offences and persistent offenders.

    Our Newcastle man went to court four months after the law change, but as the offences took place in 2000, the Magistrates could not use them! So conviction number four resulted in a fine of £1900. Was he going to stop? - just four weeks later we got the answer when another warrant executed at his home found seven recently taken eggs, including three goshawk eggs from Wales. And so on the 16 August 2001 it finally came to pass – conviction number five, relating to just seven eggs, resulted in a four-month jail sentence. At last, the court was able to give a meaningful sentence and a marker had been set. This was a fitting reward for the sheer persistence of Keith and PC Henery since 1996.

                 In 2001 the first egg thief was jailed following changes to the law

    I confess I also wanted in on the action. In the first blog I recounted how two men from Merseyside had taken osprey eggs back in 1992 from sites myself and colleagues were trying to guard in Scotland. The identity of these two men finally came to light in 1996 and I waited patiently as snippets of information came in. Helpfully in 1999, Merseyside officer PC Andy McWilliam, now with the NWCU, got involved in wildlife crime. He was also less than impressed with antics of these two and we were hot on their trail.

    In March 2002, a search warrant was executed at the home of one of the men. Unfortunately, a neighbour mistakenly thought he was out, so rather than force entry and cause unnecessary damage, attempts were made to locate him. Eventually, entry was forced and it turned out he was still inside. More importantly so was his egg collection. He was actually found in the bathroom in the frantic process of trying to flush his precious eggs and incriminating data down the toilet. Quite what was going through his mind as he desperately tried to dispose of evidence at the same time destroying what he would have seen as his life’s work is difficult to imagine. In the bathroom I could see the remains of a crushed clutch of osprey eggs were in the sink. Ironically, later examination showed these were one of the clutches he had taken in 1992. I think one or two police officers looked rather bemused when I started putting my DIY skills to good use and set about dismantling the toilet. In the U bend, along with egg shell fragments were the torn pieces of datacards. I later dried these out and laid them out like some bizarre jigsaw puzzle. These helped corroborate the other records we found at the address as to the full extent of his exploits.

    Bathroom chaos in Merseyside and the eggshells and data recovered from the toilet!

    In addition to the osprey eggs, I later worked out he had probably disposed of around two clutches of golden eagle, three of avocet, three of black-throated diver, five of peregrine, and around a dozen of both chough and little tern. Probably the most upsetting for this man would have been a single highly prized clutch of white-tailed eagle he had taken from Mull in 1998. A rather ignominious end for such a spectacular bird.

    Despite his attempts to destroy evidence there were still plenty of intact eggs, some 355 to be precise plus fragments of around another 138 eggs as far as I could work out. Of particular interest were his prized notebooks, plus many photographs, detailing his criminal activities in the field going back to 1988. As you can imagine, I later poured through this material in great depth trying to extract any relevant information. This led us to another egg collector in the West Midlands, already with two convictions including the taking of those common scoter eggs in 1999. He finally ended up in jail, this time for taking a clutch of osprey eggs.

    Our Merseyside man was arrested and interviewed by Andy and myself. In fairness he was reasonably amenable, accepting his 20 years of egg collecting and repeatedly stating said it was just an obsession he could not stop. The case progressed fairly smoothly to court, and he pleaded guilty to 13 charges. With all the eggs and his extensive records the court had an accurate picture of his reign of terror, and despite the fact this was his first conviction, in September 2002 he received a five month jail sentence.

    But we weren’t finished. About two weeks later PC McWilliam chased up some information and recovered the collection of the other Merseyside miscreant, which had been stored away from his home. This second prized haul held clutches from peregrines, ospreys, choughs and many others. Amongst the osprey eggs was his first clutch taken on that fateful night back in 1992. Again there were detailed records and photographs outlining his exploits over the previous ten years. He later pleaded guilty to 11 charges, including possession of 160 eggs of Schedule 1 birds plus 658 eggs of other species. Following in the footsteps of his associate he received four months in jail. So a little over ten years since they had taken osprey eggs in the night whilst I slept just a few miles away, some sort of justice was done.

    In the years that followed the courts exercised the custodial sentence in appropriate cases. The effect of this can be seen in the graph below and it appears that jail sentences have had a significant deterrent effect.

    Compare this with raptor persecution. Over 160 convictions since I started, just one jail sentence actually served. Those killing birds of prey are typically serially offenders, just like egg thieves. We have received detailed reports of some gamekeepers that have apparently killed hundreds of raptors during their career. In conservation terms, there is absolutely no doubt that the activities of those persecuting raptors are immeasurably more damaging to bird populations than the work of egg thieves.

    However, there is one fundamental difference which blights the ability of society to impose similar stiff sentences on the raptor killers. Egg thieves keep the evidence of their crimes which, if found, may allow a court to assess their level of offending, often over a prolonged period of many years. With raptor persecution, the evidence, namely the corpses, is invariably disposed of very quickly. As a result, the court are usually dealing with a single point in time, one shot raptor, one jar of poison, complete with usual defence mitigation that this was a one off aberration in an otherwise distinguished career.

    With fines often paid by employers and job dismissals very unusual, current court sentencing imposes little real deterrent on this sector of society. At some stage the courts need to recognise the significance of these crimes and the serious conservation impacts they cause. A few more jail sentences may well make people in the gamekeeping community think a lot more carefully about what they are expected to do by their managers and employers.

    As for egg thieves, well Operation Easter has been a great example of partnership working with statutory agencies receiving specialist help from RSPB, raptor workers and others along with the involvement of whole communities and widespread public support. As recent events in Norfolk demonstrate, there will no doubt always be some egg collectors out there, meaning vigilance is still needed. However, there can be no denying the huge progress from those busy days of chasing egg thieves when I started back in 1991.

  • Operation Easter (2 of 3) - Hatching a plan!

    The second of three blogs about the formation of Operation Easter – an initiative started 21 years ago to tackle the scourge of egg thieves.

    Barn doors and bad guys

    White-tailed eagles are big birds. Whoever first christened them as flying ‘barn doors’ probably did not expect this phrase to be so well-used to describe these magnificent birds.

    But like many raptors, they have been subject to extensive human persecution. This led to extinction in Scotland: the last birds bred in 1916 and the last bird was shot a couple of years later. In 1975, an international reintroduction project started bringing young birds from Norway to Scotland. This led to the first Scottish chick being fledged a nest on the Isle of Mull in 1985. Those early years were shrouded in secrecy. However, with over 100 pairs now gracing the Scottish skies their success is widely celebrated. They make a huge contribution to wildlife tourism benefiting local communities, in places like Skye and Mull.

    Flying ‘barn doors’ – the spectacular white-tailed eagle (Chris Gomersall)

    Despite the attempts to keep those first breeding locations a closely-guarded secret, they soon came onto the radar of egg thieves as a potentially new and highly prized addition for their collections. Their rarity made them irresistible. In March 1995, two egg thieves from Coventry and Merseyside tried to rob a Mull nest. At that time there were just a fragile handful of pairs breeding in Scotland with just five chicks fledged the previous year. During the night-time raid, the female parent broke one of her eggs trying to defend the nest and the remaining one was left. Mull was now getting all the wrong sort of attention – more bad guys would be coming, and something needed to be done.

     In 1991, PC Finlay Christine had arrived on Mull. Having started his career in Glasgow, no doubt dealing with a different type of wildlife, he was anticipating a few years' secondment. Instead he was there a while longer - until in fact he retired in 2009. Finlay was one of those larger-than-life characters, but sadly he passed away in 2012 from cancer.

    In 1995, he became the WCO for the island and worked with the local community and the RSPB to set up an eagle watch programme, which still runs to this day. The support from the local community to deal with the threat of marauding Englanders was fantastic. Ferries were watched, suspicious cars and individuals all reported back to the watchful Finlay. The RSPB warden on Mull was Richard Evans, a dedicated conservationist who tragically passed away in 2016, aged just 52. He was passionate about eagles, and was integral to the watch scheme. Myself, colleagues and seconded police officers spent some time on Mull. As well as looking out for bad guys, it was also a rather special place, with otters, divers and many other birds complementing the resident eagles. 

    In the spring of 1996, our Coventry man returned with associates. With the island on high alert, the men were stopped with a huge arsenal of egg collecting equipment. Two of them, both with multiple previous convictions, were fined £1000 which hardly reflected the seriousness of with they were intending. But with no jail sentences available, there was no more the court could do. Whilst they were intercepted, unfortunately others slipped the net and egg thieves plundered a nest in the night - the first successful robbery of the reintroduced birds. There was public uproar. I suspect the fact that everyone in Scotland believed, quite correctly, that the culprits were English made them even less happy. Those eggs have never been recovered, though I have a good idea who has them. The Coventry man, after two failed attempts, told me he was ‘gutted’ not to have been the first person to take a clutch.

    The Mull Eagle Watch still keeps a watchful eye on the island (Iain Erskine)

    In 1997, WCO PC Ian Hutchison, of the then Tayside Police, was on a secondment working with my colleagues in Scotland. With a strong interest in computers, he was fascinated to see our RSPB database, the wealth of information it contained, and felt the police should be doing far more. In February 1997, the RSPB supplied details of the most active collectors and so Operation Easter was born. Tayside police and RSPB worked with police forces around the UK to keep tabs on the activities of these people. WCO Inspector Alan Stewart took up the running of the scheme, which was later passed across to the NWCU.

    During 1997, two brothers from Hampshire were caught egg collecting on the Orkneys. The local Sheriff was no doubt less than impressed at the lack of sentencing options and fined them £90,000 each! This was later reduced to £6,000 on appeal, but the Sheriff had clearly made his point.

    Unfortunately, our man from Coventry wasn’t to be denied and in 1998 he returned to Mull with his Merseyside associate and they took two clutches – again the island and the conservation world were in uproar. A short while later the police recovered the Coventry man’s notebooks during an unrelated enquiry for which he was later jailed. They were fascinating, but certainly not fun, reading. He had taken over 230 eggs of rare breeding birds, this included three clutches of osprey, three of golden eagle, two of red kite and even a clutch of golden oriole eggs from our RSPB Lakenheath reserve on my birthday - I was not happy! If all this was not bad enough, they confirmed the taking of white-tailed eagle eggs earlier that spring.

    We had no doubt these records listed eggs he had taken since 1984 – but without the actual eggs, proving that wouldn't be easy. We needed to convince the police, the CPS and ultimately the court, that the notebooks could only mean one thing: the taking of birds’ eggs. From our database we could show many of the nesting sites had been robbed; and through Operation Easter we could put him at various locations mentioned in the notebooks because of police stop checks all around the country. I contacted these police officers and asked them to delve back into their memory banks and notebooks. We got a great response and a series of statements duly arrived.

    With our man already in jail for other matters, this meant a slightly surreal experience of a prison visit with a police officer in order to interview him. I had never met this major wildlife criminal and wondered what he would be like. It wasn't exactly a Stanley-Livingstone moment. As he arrived, I thought he looked a beaten man. For a man who reveled in travelling around the country in pursuit of rare birds, confinement no doubt came as something of a shock. The interview was reasonably civil, but he said the notebooks were just records of eggs that he or others had seen and not taken. However, he had accepted they were his notebooks and he was charged with taking 16 clutches of eggs during 1997 and 1998, including two white-tailed eagle eggs from Mull. Pleading guilty for his seventh, and final, conviction he was fined £3500. A reasonable fine, but hardly a reflection of the damage he had wrought for more than a decade. This was yet another clear indication that the law was simply not fit to deal with serial wildlife criminals.

    The Coventry man’s egg collection was recovered a few years later, white-tailed eagle eggs front and centre (Guy Shorrock RSPB)

    Though the Mull eagle watch scheme was in full swing, the lure of eagle eggs was still too much for some. In November 1998, two eggs thieves from Manchester arrived on Mull. One was already facing trial for eggs seized at his home a few months earlier, and the other already had two previous convictions. Claiming to be BBC researchers, they started asking questions in a local pub about eagles and produced a map marked with nest sites. English people asking questions on Mull about eagles? Well, that would have taken about five minutes to get around the entire island. Helpfully, Richard Evans was also in the pub, so their chances of a secret reconnaissance trip disappeared almost instantly. Warrants were executed at their homes, and whilst nothing particularly incriminating was found, at one address I noted with interest a very expensive pair of Bausch and Lomb binoculars. Egg thieves typically have fairly cheap binoculars, partly because they are not proper birdwatchers, but also because they might be seized and forfeited by a court.

    While their intentions had been rumbled, it certainly did not seem to put them off. In March 1999, a parked car with an empty bike rack was seen on Mull. They were back – and it wasn’t a cycling holiday! Richard Evans was quickly on the scene to join PC Finlay and his colleague at the bottom of a glen where a pair of white-tailed eagles was nesting. A parent bird was flying around suggesting disturbance was happening. The trio made their way up the glen and found two bicycles in the edge of the nest wood from which the two Manchester men eventually emerged, Richard immediately recognising our ‘BBC researchers’. They were promptly arrested, and a search of their vehicle found climbing equipment, a GPS, a mirror on an extendable aerial (for examining nests), bolt cutters (no doubts for any nest protection razor wire) and a rather expensive pair of Bausch and Lomb binoculars. 

    The late WCO PC Finlay Christine with a haul of equipment from egg thieves caught on Mull (Guy Shorrock RSPB).

    When I heard the news, I got on the phone to Finlay. The first question I asked was about the binoculars and Finlay replied with a laugh that they had already been seized, and subject to an anticipated conviction, they had already been earmarked for the Mull Eagle Watch project. During interview one of the men explained they were just on holiday taking photographs. PC Christine posed the cunning question, “Well then, can you tell me where your camera is?”. This apparently provoked a long pause.

    Richard Evans returned to the wood with a colleague. Richard was literally on his hands and knees when he came to a rather suspicious lump covered in pine needles. There was a plastic bag containing the missing camera, but rather more sinister was a hammer, six-inch nails and box with padding material. The nails were undoubtedly to be knocked into the nest tree to allow it to be climbed and padding for holding their intended prize. Following interview, they were also relieved of their bikes and their car and escorted off the island.

    Whilst we all waited for the court appearance, other egg collectors kept heading for Scotland. My colleague David Dick had been the main driving force in Scotland for over a decade when it came to tackling egg thieves, and was sharp as a tack in the field. In June 1999, he received a wee snippet of information about egg thieves possibly targeting common scoters, a bird decidedly uncommon in Scotland. He reacted quickly and made his way with a police officer to a breeding loch. As usual his instincts were spot on, and in the far distance were two men out on the loch in small inflatable dinghies. They walked in and intercepted two West Midlands men leaving the area – complete with 21 common scoter and eight red-breasted merganser eggs. These two already had three convictions between them. So that was two really good Operation Easter successes in the space of just a few months.

    In January 2000, the two Manchester men appeared in court and pleaded guilty to possession of egg-collecting equipment on Mull – equipment intended to be used against one of our rarest birds. They were fined just £750 each. In March that year, the two men from the West Midlands pleaded guilty to three charges relating to the taking of the 29 duck eggs. Whilst giving them a more respectable fine of £2000 each, the Sheriff commented “Unless prison is an option I do not think you will be much discouraged”. He was not wrong.

    Patience was clearly wearing thin with marauding English egg thieves but there was simply no option of a more meaningful custodial sentence – that was soon about to change!

  • Operation Easter (1 of 3): the beginnings

    Last week saw the conviction of egg collector James North from Devon. This was a timely reminder that this spring marks 21 years since the launch of Operation Easter, an intelligence-led operation to target the UK’s egg thieves. At the start it was run jointly by Tayside Police and RSPB, with the NWCU later picking up the baton. In a series of three blogs, I’ll be reflecting on the development of Operation Easter, its successes helping to bring about important changes in the law, and the situation today.

    This first blog gives a little backstory to the problem of egg-collecting.

    First impressions

    I joined RSPB in 1991 after more than seven busy years with the police. One of my strongest memories from that early period was my introduction to the bizarre world of egg collectors, or ‘egg thieves’ as we preferred to call them. There were plenty about in those days, and they were giving regular unwanted attention to species like red kites and ospreys, both of which had fragile recovering populations with less than 100 breeding pairs. Their pointless pursuit of egg shells, for their own personal gratification, made them universally unpopular and strenuous efforts were being made by ourselves, police, raptor workers, landowners and local communities to try and give rare breeding birds some protection from egg thieves during the breeding season.

    Egg thieves can devote most of their life to building up extensive collections (Guy Shorrock)

    Each spring it seemed the phone was ringing every weekend with calls from around the country, particularly Scotland, about the sightings of possible suspects and their vehicles or the sad news that yet another nest had been raided. We were on high alert from as early as February, when ravens start to breed, followed by golden eagles though to late spring when divers and waders lay. My colleagues in Scotland had a great relationship with the police, many of whom I suspect regarded catching an English egg collector as one of the pinnacles of their career!

    By the time I left the police, our information on the activities of local suspects consisted mostly of a variety of scribbled entries on a large card index system. We didn’t even have a computer in the office, so when I arrived at the RSPB and was presented with my own PC, I was fascinated to see their wildlife crime database – a much-updated version of which we use today as the backbone to our Investigations work. Sightings of egg thieves and nest robberies were diligently recorded, allowing us to join dots and work out which species and nesting sites might be most at risk, and where some of our ‘most wanted’ might be heading. The concept of 'intelligence led policing' came to the fore in the 1990s, however RSPB Investigations had already been applying this principle for many years before I started. As such, because of this work, RSPB Investigations were undoubtedly the sworn enemy of the egg thieves.

    Golden eagles have been a key target for egg thieves since Victorian times (Guy Shorrock)

    Currently in the system, we have around 1300 confirmed nest robberies of Schedule 1 species, including 119 ospreys, 59 golden eagles, six white-tailed eagles, 51 red kites, 37 black-throated diver, 41 chough, 23 Slavonian grebe and 151 little terns to name a few. For many species we will only be aware of a small proportion of those actually taken.

    Ospreys – up close and personal

    When I started egg thieves were a serious problem for ospreys. On one occasion, the notorious late Colin Watson and his colleagues took five clutches in a 24-hour period. Consequently, in May 1992, I joined my colleagues Dave Dick and Keith Morton, plus a few volunteers, to try and help watch several osprey nests in Perthshire. Four nests had been raided in 1991 and we anticipated further problems. As a Schedule 1 species, a government licence is required to visit these nests. Consequently, I had never been anywhere near an osprey nest, or any other rare breeding bird for that matter. But assisted by local raptor worker Keith Brockie showing the way in his wellingtons (and having that all-important license), I was able to clamber up behind him to the top of a couple of pine trees to inspect the contents of large stick nests to see if birds had laid. In one of the nests, I saw what egg thieves raved about so wildly: three large eggs splashed with reddish and brown markings. Whatever the aesthetic arguments about their appearance, the concept of somebody preferring to have dead calcium shells in a drawer over the spectacle of an osprey wheeling over the Scottish countryside remains mind-boggling.

    There were several nests within a few miles of each other, but giving these meaningful protection was very difficult. To properly guard just one nest requires considerable manpower. Every year the RSPB organises the guarding of the high-profile osprey nest at the Loch Garten. This is run like a military operation and requires large numbers of volunteers. Our efforts were always going to be something of a compromise, so we decided to concentrate mainly on the weekend period when egg thieves were most likely to arrive. A local landowner had kindly allowed us the use of a bothy. Though it had seen better days and was fairly basic, it was a welcome refuge after a day in the wind and rain. It was also in a lovely spot by a loch and at first light the sound of lekking black grouse bubbled across the water. Our routine involved getting up before dawn, then spending the day checking the nest sites, making sure the ospreys were incubating normally, and watching from vantage points to see if any suspicious-looking individuals turned up.

    My younger self waiting for osprey egg thieves back in 1992 - our bothy in the background (Guy Shorrock)

    Having left mid-week to deal with other work, we returned on the Thursday ready to cover the weekend period. What we didn’t know was that, in the very early hours of that day, two osprey clutches had been taken by a Merseyside egg collector who was completely unknown to us at that time. He had already taken four osprey clutches in 1991.

    My notebook for Friday 8 May simply said: ‘4.30 start. Area checked during day. Weather generally horrendous with driving snow and blizzards’. That evening were getting ready for a few hours’ sleep in our bothy in preparation for the weekend. Little did we know that in the darkness our unknown egg thief was back, now with an accomplice. The pair made their way along a track on the other side of the loch and took another clutch in the middle of the night.

    When, in 2002, we finally caught up with our two men, from Merseyside, search warrants recovered extensive egg collections plus detailed diaries, notes and photographs. Both men were jailed. In the diary of one of the men I noted with interest the entry for the Friday 8 May 1992 ‘We reached Loch (name) where I changed into my camouflaged waterproofs. A light could be seen on inside Loch (name) Lodge with a vehicle parked outside. This is the warden’s house, so we quietly walked on by’. You guessed it – the warden’s lodge was in fact our bothy, where we were all settling in for the night. The two of them would have passed within 300 metres of our doorstep.

    Five of ten osprey clutches recovered from the two Merseyside men in 2002 (Guy Shorrock)

    During the weekend, we could see something wasn’t right by the birds’ behaviour. I clambered up a couple of Scots pines and a very tall Douglas fir to find only empty nests. It was bad enough for us, but quite how it felt for raptor workers like Keith Brockie, who spent hundreds of hours in his own time trying to monitor and protect these birds, and then having to suffer this scenario each spring is hard to imagine. Whether it was due to this early experience I don't know, but osprey robberies became a bit of a pet subject, and I have spent a great deal of time chasing down osprey eggs thieves and helping the police to recover numerous clutches. Nearly all these can now be found in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, each clutch with its own sad story to tell, but at least available for any future scientific study.

    Despite ten or more convictions each year during the 1990s, it was clear that more work was still needed when it came to tackling egg thieves.

    Next time… Operation Easter: hatching a plan!