A first! An ASBO to protect nature... part 2

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

A first! An ASBO to protect nature... part 2

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Further to my earlier blog today, here is a personal take on the ASBO from one of our brilliant investigators, Mark Thomas.

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, 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; 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 rights, 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, kites to name but only 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 6 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 dairies 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 statistically became the first ever person to receive an ASBO for crimes against nature. He was banned from leaving England to visit Scotland between February 1st and August 31st for TEN YEARS. In addition he also had 7 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 5 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.

Comments
  • Martin / Mark.  I have long thought there should be a way of delaying sentence to ensure persistent offenders are out of play during the breeding season.  Hopefully this is the start.  It may not stop them but it will make it harder.  I thought egg collecting was declining but perhaps these younger collectors have developed a fanatical attitude to this rather than the misguided (alleged scientific) approach of the older ones.