Investigations

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You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Collecting without conscience

    On 9 April 2013 at Inverness Sheriff court, Keith Liddell of Holm Dell Drive, Inverness, was sentenced to a 220 hours community service order.  During an earlier trial in March there was a dramatic change in direction and he decided to plead guilty to 13 charges relating to the illegal trading in birds’ eggs and possession of 338 eggs. 

    The background to this case and events elsewhere give a fascinating insight into how the desire to collect can override obvious questions about the origins of the items sought.

    The desire to collect appears to be deep seated in our nature.  In an evolutionary perspective, there was clearly great value for our ancestors to gather and keep items that were needed or which might become in short supply at some later stage. We see this across nature with a whole range of animals storing food to get them through difficult periods. 

    At some stage in human history this must have progressed to the trading of items for mutual benefit and this now forms the basis for our society.  This desire to collect continues to expresses itself in modern society in an incredibly diverse manner.  From antiques, books, stamps, cars, toys, autographs the list seems endless.  So it is not surprising that wildlife features in this list, from a twitcher’s list to taxidermy, and from shells to skulls. 

    The problem with trading is that it inevitably creates a demand for products.  The global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES) has sought to try to control worldwide trade in more vulnerable animals, plants and their derivatives. 

    However, at times this seems completely ineffectual when you look at the impact of demand on some of the rarest creatures on the planet.  The desire for rare parrots, ivory, tiger and rhino derivatives demonstrate the extremely serious conservation impacts that trade can have for some species.  In extreme cases it can even push them to extinction.  As the rarity increases this can fuel the prices, creating yet further incentive to take from the wild.

    Whilst not in the same league as some of these major global concerns, it appears that birds’ eggs also hold an unhealthy fascination for some.  For over 20 years, nearly all my work with egg collectors has revolved around people taking eggs from the wild and where these represent a trophy of their exploits in the field. 

    Eggs do pass between collectors, usually when an individual has died or decides he no longer wishes to keep them.  Some individuals are content to collect eggs taken by others and indeed from around the mid nineteenth century for around a hundred years a number people and auction houses made a living from the selling of birds’ eggs.  In Britain this effectively came to an end with the Protection of Birds Act 1954 which made the selling of birds’ eggs unlawful. 

    For all the social benefits of the internet, it is clear it has opened a massive door of opportunity for people to deal and trade in illegal items.  The policing of this cyber world seems an almost impossible task.  Along with a myriad of items on offer, birds’ eggs occasionally occur on internet auction sites, though these are typically poor quality collections and I suspect many sellers are unaware of the offences they are committing.

    And so to the strange underworld of Mr Liddell and his associates.  Amongst these more discerning collectors of birds’ eggs, illegal trading took place in a much furtive and organised way.  In 2009, I was asked by Durham Constabulary to look at a collection of over 2000 eggs they had just seized.  Initially it seemed fairly shambolic and badly set out, but as I started to delve things became very interesting.  Amongst things which caught my eye were a clutch of greenshank eggs taken from Scotland in 1993 by the notorious egg collector Colin Watson.  There were eggs from the United States and Australia.  A set of egg datacards in ‘familiar’ handwriting, which I had little doubt would be fraudulent, and later confirmed by forensic handwriting tests.  My curiosity was aroused!

    I then saw email correspondence from the suspect and trawling through some 6000 emails it was soon apparent that the exchange of eggs was taking place with two individuals in Scotland, and that there was a network of people involved including individuals in the US, Australia, South Africa and Scandinavia.  A pile of used parcels showed eggs had had been posted from the US with contents falsely declared as Christmas ornaments or socks!  The individual from County Durham was later prosecuted and pleaded guilty to keeping, trading and smuggling birds’ eggs.  He received a suspended jail sentence.

    And so north to Scotland.  In June 2009 the police raided two address, one the home of prison officer Keith Liddell in Inverness.  Behind a bookcase in the loft, over 2000 birds’ eggs were recovered.  Myself and colleagues set about the time consuming process of cataloguing these and examining photographs, datacards and yet more emails.  The complexity of these cases creates a whole range of investigative problems for the police.  They simply don’t have the experiences and resources. Without the hundreds of hours of work by RSPB staff, cases such as these would often never reach a court. 

    Even then, there are still problems.  From the home of an associate of Liddell in Scotland a large collection of eggs was seized, though unfortunately this did not proceed to court.   Encouragingly, the formation of the Wildlife and Environment Unit in 2011 within COPFS and the appointment of dedicated staff to deal with wildlife crime was instrumental in the success of the case against Liddell.  The RSPB would like to see a similar unit in the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with wildlife crime in England and Wales.

    With Liddell’s eggs there was data with some of the eggs which suggested they had been taken from as far back as the end of the nineteenth century to as recently as 2007.  His emails indicated he was swapping eggs with several other individuals and that he had even paid hundreds of pounds to acquire eggs from some of his associates.  He was clearly well connected with many people in the egg collecting world. 

    Quite what was going on in his strange little world is difficult to know.  Whilst many of the eggs he acquired were old, having been taken many years ago, it was clear some of the people he was dealing were still actively collecting.  His quest to build an extensive collection containing a diverse array of species appeared to have completely consumed him.  Exciting species were actively sought – Egyptian, black and griffon vultures, ospreys, peregrines, black-throated divers, cranes and many more.  It appeared no thought was given to the origin of these eggs, and he was well and truly lost in a world without conscience.

    Interestingly, it appeared some of the people involved in the egg trading world were quite happy to lie about the identity and provenance of the eggs to increase their trading value. Species were deliberately mis-identified as something ‘more interesting’, or stated to be wild taken when they had been laid in captivity.  Clearly no honour amongst egg traders!

    Following events in the UK, the results of enquiries abroad have been mixed.  In the US there appears to have been a failure by the authorities to act against two egg traders, and no news at all from Australia.  Closer to home in Scandinavia the news is much better.  Over 16,000 eggs have been seized and it is believed four individuals are facing court proceedings. 

    Hopefully, recent proceedings will have made others involved in egg trading sit up and take note.  The authorities have shown they can investigate and prosecute such difficult cases and the courts will take them seriously.  That at least should be on their conscience.

  • Do your bit, for the Peak Goshawk

    Like many nature lovers born in the massively populated areas that surround the Peak District National Park my life has been inextricably linked to that special place and its wildlife.

    My passion was really ignited on my first ever school trip, to a Peak outdoor pursuits centre, despite the really exciting itinerary it was the birds that did it, 5 days of specialist birding, dipper, merlin, stonechat, ring ouzel, dunlin all being new species. 

    Then at 15 my first ever goshawk, a moment permanently etched on my psyche. THE prize, the gold card in the football sticker album, how proud I was of my goshawk, a monster of a female, flapping low across a woodland ride, flashing its fluffy white under tail coverts as if replicating the plates in the field guide that I had studied.

    At that time I was vaguely aware that not all people liked goshawks, I remember a headline page in the Sheffield Star newspaper with an image showing an x-ray of a goshawk – blasted to pieces whilst on its nest. I also knew that the birdwatching community was doing its bit, trying to protect these birds. 

    Twenty-five years later the goshawk is still persecuted and on the verge of extinction in the northern Dark Peak whilst starkly, the population in the southern White Peak is doing well. Now, the goshawk really needs you to do your bit. You may have visited the Derwent Valley in the Dark Peak and been lucky enough to see a goshawk, if you haven’t then your chances are fading away, so please comment. Five years ago we published a report highlighting the way things were going and then further invested in our investigations work, see the report here http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/PeakMalpractice_tcm9-132666.pdf

    So what’s going on? The National Trust (NT) have undertaken an ambitious piece of audit work, assessing the condition and value of their huge 'High Peak' estate, this work informing a new vision for the future. This co-incides with a number of the NT land tenancies coming up for review. Public consultation ends on November 30th. 

    Raptor persecution has hardly been out of the news in the Derwent Valley, a shot peregrine, a dead squirrel covered in glue found under a goshawk nest, a ravens nest pulled out, a poisoned buzzard found with only one leg, goshawk chicks taken, two vanishing male hen harriers, an active goshawk nest removed and its eggs smashed, it goes on and on .... 

    And then the prosecutions, firstly in 2003 a keeper on NT land on the west side of the Derwent Valley, convicted for destroying an active goshawk nest after extensive forensic work by RSPB and Derbyshire Police and most recently the infamous case of Glen Brown, a keeper on NT land on the east side of the Derwent Valley, filmed red-handed using a cage trap baited with a live white pigeon to catch birds of prey.  See link 

    http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/investigations/archive/2011/06/14/shadowy-existence.aspx

    This case was perhaps THE most important conviction of its type with much more than the gamekeepers future at stake. This case was pivotal in winning further support for birds of prey and changing opinions.  

    Following on, The National Trusts’s vision clearly acknowledges persecution has to stop.  The vision will also end burning as a grouse moor management tool on deep peat, good news for all in the fight against climate change.  

    So why is this important now, because this might be the ONLY opportunity in your lifetime to comment, we need goshawks to survive, we need change, NT need your views.

    Please - it’s your turn, do your bit, now, support NT’s vision. http://www.high-peak-moors.co.uk 

  • From the beat to Bangkok

    I'm in my hotel room in a very hot and muggy Bangkok with the sounds of a 10 million-strong bustling city going on around me. When I started work as a Police Officer, at the tender age of 22, little did I realise how my journey would lead to the exciting work of the RSPB Investigations section.

    Furthermore, I certainly would not have believed that some 28 years later I would be attending an international conference in Thailand to talk about the use of forensic evidence in the investigation of wildlife crime.

    During my police service I had a regular involvement with the usual forensic techniques when attending burglaries and other crime scenes. When I arrived at the RSPB, I found they had already been using a variety of forensics methods to investigate wildlife crime. Of most interest was an investigation they started just before I arrived.

    Blood samples had just been taken from some goshawks held in captivity by a falconer in Liverpool. DNA testing showed that the four offspring were not related to their declared 'mother'.

    In 1992, this resulted in the first ever wildlife DNA conviction in the UK and was in fact the last private prosecution ever brought by the RSPB. Though the offender only received a derisory fine, it set in place a chain of events that would keep me very busy for the next few years.

    With my own university background in biochemistry and interest in forensics, I was keen to get involved in this work and initiated and assisted with a number of DNA-based enquiries to check the captive breeding of people keeping raptors in captivity.

    Since 1982, there had been a government registration scheme for people keeping captive-bred birds of prey and this was intended to prevent the laundering of birds taken from the wild. However, for those in the know it was quite easy to get eggs or chicks from a wild nest and simply claim they had been bred in captivity, get them registered and sell them.

    Whilst the registration scheme seemed to have little deterrent on people stealing birds of prey from the wild, its existence later became vital to the use of DNA testing. It ensured birds were uniquely marked, could be physically located and we had details of the 'declared' family relationships between birds. This information was all essential to get the necessary blood samples from the birds and allow the geneticists to do their work and test these declared relationships with DNA analysis.

    We were fortunate that around that time the Department of the Environment (a predecessor of Defra) had invested money in developing DNA technology in raptors and allowed us to use the expertise being developed at Nottingham University.

    This work led to numerous convictions and showed what the RSPB and others had long suspected - that there was widespread laundering of wild-taken peregrines and goshawks into the captive market.

    We also saw a reduction in raids on wild peregrine nests and a fall in captive breeding success as it appeared some people decided dealing in wild birds was no longer worth the risk. In my 20 years, this has been one of the biggest successes in wildlife crime enforcement in the UK and a fantastic example of how forensic evidence can be effectively used.

    A couple of the cases in particular were very high profile with two men receiving custodial sentences for laundering a large number of peregrines. I believe the high profile nature of these and a few other wildlife cases were instrumental in the government in setting up the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW) in the mid 1990s.

    This brought together statutory agencies and NGOs to work together to tackle wildlife crime. A PAW Forensic Working Group (FWG) was also set up and with my background in the use of DNA and other forensic techniques in wildlife crime investigation, I was lucky enough to be was invited to join along with individuals and scientists from various backgrounds.

    Since that time, the group has sought to assist statutory agencies to use forensics methods in wildlife crime and has identified new areas of research to tackle existing and emerging problems. This work has helped and encouraged the wider use of forensics in the UK.

    The RSPB and others had hoped that Defra would expand the registration scheme to make people accountable for holding other species of high conservation concern, such as some of the critically-endangered parrots. This would give us the opportunity to develop new DNA testing method to check any suspicious captive breeding claims.

    Ironically, despite the fantastic success of those early cases and further substantial financial support for further development of DNA testing in raptors in 2004, Defra then set about dismantling some of the registration scheme following a long and fairly acrimonious consultation process ending in 2008. This was despite advice from the police, RSPB and even their own scientific advisors, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. This was really a lost opportunity and one of the most disappointing failures by the government after all that initial hard-won success.

    However, one consolation that had emerged was in 2004 when geneticists Dr Robert Ogden and Dr Ross McEwing, then at Bangor University, got involved with the FWG. They had independently set about trying to promote the use of DNA testing in wildlife crime enforcement and had obvious value to the work of the FWG. Their drive and enthusiasm has been immensely impressive and they have helped instigate and drive forward a whole range of research and initiatives to improve the ability to use DNA forensics in wildlife cases in the UK and internationally.

    They set up the TRACE Wildlife Forensics network, a not-for-profit organisation, to take forward this work and were instrumental in the setting up of a DNA forensics laboratory in Scotland offering free genetic testing for all Scottish police forces in wildlife cases. Internationally they have been very active with research work on rhino and other endangered species.

    In 2009, TRACE obtained funding from the UK Darwin Initiative supported by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. This was a three-year project in partnership with TRAFFIC South East Asia to form a Wildlife Forensic Network to support The Association of Southeast Asian Nations – Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN –WEN).

    South-east Asia is a key battleground in the fight against the illegal trafficking of the worlds most endangered species. It is a consumer and supplier of items from tiger products to tropical hardwoods, and also a transit point, for example for poached rhino horn being smuggled from Africa to China and Vietnam.

    The RSPB is heavily involved with international conservation, including work in Asia on the amazing Harapan Forest Project in Sumatra. Whilst deforestation and habitat loss remain the biggest threats to biodiversity in Indonesia and other parts of the world, issues of illegal poaching and trade are also highly relevant to species like the highly-endangered Sumatran tiger.

    The stakes for everyone could not be higher and wildlife forensics, particularly DNA testing, will have an increasing part to play in effective enforcement. The ASEAN Wildlife Forensic Network project has helped set up and improve wildlife DNA forensics testing facilities in several Asian countries and provided training for the collection of evidence by the law enforcement agencies.

    At the conference, it was very humbling to see just the amount of work and energy that individuals and governments have put into the project. Whilst there is a long way to go, law enforcers are already using these new and developing forensic facilities. The laboratories are involved in cross-working and developing new and more effective forensic tests.

    I would like to think that work over many years by the RSPB in using and promoting various forensics methods to tackle wildlife crime in the UK had perhaps played a small part in getting events moving in other parts of the world.

    Whether countries around the world can collaborate effectively to save charismatic megafauna like the tiger remains to be seen. However, the impact that even small UK funded projects can potentially achieve when driven by committed individuals at a tiny organisation like TRACE is astonishing. This should give hope to us all of what could be achieved if governments could also make the necessary commitments of political will and necessary resources.