Investigations

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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Stuck in the Dark ages

    Written by Howard Jones, Assistant Investigations Officer

    When I used to think of the year 2014 as a child it sounded like a date that was so far into the future that it was simply beyond all comprehension. It was a date straight out of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ where robots would serve us dinner and cars would drive us. Yet having been part of the Investigations team for nearly two years now, I can only say that some facets of our country are still trapped in a bygone Victorian era and firmly stuck in the Dark Ages.

    In June 2013, my colleagues received a report from the League Against Cruel Sports of a potential pole trap inside a plantation on the Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire. When my colleagues arrived the following day, their worst fears were realised. It was a pole trap. A device banned since 1904, three years after the fall of Queen Victoria because of its indiscriminate way of catching animals and being synonymous with catching birds of prey.

    For those not aware, a pole trap is a device that involves placing a spring trap (basically an extremely powerful mouse trap) on an elevated platform such as post or a pole. Spring traps can be operated legally to target mustelids such as stoats and weasels but only when placed under a cover so that non target animals, such as protected mammals and birds, avoid being caught. Unfortunately, pole traps are still used as a method of targeting birds of prey, which like to perch and have a vantage position when hunting. They are usually discovered on land managed for game bird shooting where some people have tried to reduce potential predation by birds of prey and owls. Sparrowhawks, goshawks and tawny owls are typical intended victims, though a wide range of birds species landing on such a trap are vulnerable to being caught. Birds caught in such traps are usually despatched by the trap operator or die as a result of their horrific injuries.

    This particular pole trap was disabled by my colleagues and a covert camera was installed to monitor who was responsible for it. A few days later, the culprit arrived on camera. See the video here.

    The video shows a 25 year old male called Ryan Waite who is a gamekeeper on the Swinton Estate, situated within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Waite casually re-sets the spring trap placing it back on top of the tree stump. Following this footage, a search warrant was executed by North Yorkshire Police assisted by RSPB. When we arrived at the pole trap site with the police, we found the trap had been removed. It later emerged on our camera footage that Waite had removed the trap. The same trap was found on his premises later during the search. Waite admitted in police interview that he had set the pole trap though he claimed the device was set to target squirrels and not birds of prey.

    Most professional predator controllers (gamekeepers) worth their salt will tell you that a pole trap is not used for squirrels. There is no need to take the risk to control a squirrel illegally when there are numerous legal alternatives to controlling squirrels that are far more effective than a pole trap. There was no mention of squirrels in the work diary of Waite, which documented the animals killed during his predator control work on the estate. The area within the plantation that the pole trap was set in would be an ideal flyway for a raptor. In the event, although Waite subsequently pleaded guilty to setting the trap, the court were unable to determine what he had set if for other than that he had been reckless in doing so.

    It is hard to contemplate why a 25 year old male with his whole career in front of him would even take the risk to set a pole trap. Most people in their right mind would not dream of breaking the law. The stakes are far too high. If you break the law, then you can expect to face huge consequences including the possibility of losing your job and potentially risking your whole career. Yet the financial incentives to increase game bird numbers on shooting estates for clients by whatever means possible (including raptor persecution) seemingly makes the risk worthwhile for some. Since 1990, over a hundred gamekeepers have run the same gauntlet, appearing in court for raptor persecution offences.

    It is broken system that dictates that a person feels they can commit a crime using a device banned for over a century and accept the risks that he undertakes. We come across far too many prosecutions where financial penalties incurred such as fines and legal costs seem more like an inconvenience rather than a sentence. Furthermore, convicted gamekeepers usually either keep their jobs or are re-employed elsewhere in the shooting industry. It is the convenient relationship where gamekeepers take the fall in court but are looked after by their employers behind the scenes. The deterrents to stop people committing raptor persecution are not in place at the moment either through the courts or within the shooting industry. This is the major problem faced in tackling this type of crime. We still come across far too many incidents of poisoning, trapping and shooting of birds of prey.

    One way that could pay dividends and might lead to a real reduction in these crimes is if criminal liability for the actions of their gamekeepers was extended to cover their managers and employers. An offence of “vicarious liability” was introduced in Scotland in January 2012. This can make landowners culpable for the actions of their gamekeepers if they commit raptor persecution crimes unless they can show they have taken steps to prevent it from happening. It’s still early days. There are some encouraging early signs with a reduction in recorded poisoning incidents in Scotland in 2012 compared to previous years, though we need to see if this is sustained over the years ahead. We need the Westminster Government to take raptor persecution as seriously as the Scots have and introduce vicarious liability south of the border. That step, combined with some robust sentencing by magistrates and employers taking a stronger line with their employees following conviction, could go a long way towards stamping out this barbaric practice. But as long as it continues, the shooting industry will continue to carry the raptor persecution millstone around its neck.

  • A thief by any other name

     

    German: Eierdieb

    Swedish: Äggtjuv

    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

     

    STOP PRESS!

     

    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!

     

  • 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.