Investigations

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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Bedlam in Bulgaria

    Today an English egg collector, Jan Frederick Ross formerly of Bury, Greater Manchester, was convicted in a Bulgarian court for egg collecting offences.

    We first dealt with Mr Ross back in 1998 shortly after the start of his egg collecting career.  A search warrant at his home in Bury found several recently taken eggs including clutches of osprey, red kite, peregrine and also Slavonian grebe from the RSPB Loch Ruthven reserve.  He was later fined £4800 for a number of offences.

    Despite this ongoing investigation, this seemed no deterrent and he teamed up with another local egg collector and focused his sights on the white-tailed eagle.  In November 1998 our RSPB warden was in a local pub on the island of Mull, Scotland when Mr Ross and his new friend starting asking questions about eagles and claiming to be doing research for a BBC documentary.  Two white-tailed eagle nests had been robbed earlier that year and the locals were understandably not happy and on high alert.  So these rather dubious looking English characters quickly came to our attention.  I visited both men with the police a short while later at their homes and they were advised about leaving the Mull eagles alone.  However, in March 1999 they were caught on Mull near a white-tailed eagle nest with a small arsenal of egg collecting equipment.  They were fined just £750 each.  There was not much more the court could do with them despite the seriousness of the crime they were trying to commit.  The lack of custodial sentences at that time meant that fines were still seen as an occupational hazard for many egg thieves.

    In 2003, Ross and his associate were caught in Scotland yet again, this time with a number of recently taken birds’ eggs carefully hidden in a compartment under the bonnet.  They were both fined over a £1,000 and probably only escaped jail because the option of custodial sentences did not arrive in Scotland until 2004.

    After this things seemed to go quiet.  So had Mr Ross learned his lesson?  Based on the information we received in 2008 it would appear not.  We were informed Mr Ross was now living in Burgas, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria and up to his old tricks.  It was likely the authorities had no knowledge of this strange crime so he could no doubt plunder the Bulgarian countryside with little fear of being caught.  With the help of the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit an intelligence report was sent to the Bulgarian authorities.  But, with wildlife crime not really on the agenda in Bulgaria, it was not surprising that no investigation was ever started.

    The imperial eagle is under threat in Bulgaria           (Daniele Occhiato)

    Fortunately, around this time the RSPB were working with the Bulgarian BirdLife partner, BSPB, on an EU LIFE project, ‘Save the Raptors’, looking at the conservation of saker falcon and imperial eagle in Bulgaria.  I had been asked to assist with improving capacity building within the Bulgarian statutory authorities to tackle wildlife crime.  Fortunately BSPB had a good contact with a senior police officer in Bourgas who took the matter seriously.  These sorts of enquiries were unknown in Bulgaria and presented significant problems.  However, following my visits to Bulgaria, a reciprocal visit by Bulgarian officials to a UK National Wildlife Crime conference, and assisted by plenty of Skype calls, we started to make some progress.

    Finally in December 2011, I was present with the Burgas Police and a BSPB colleague, when the home of Mr Ross, a modern seafront apartment, was finally raided.  Several police officers in leather jackets, looking a bit more like ex-KGB, raiding a flat in eastern Bulgaria looking for birds’ eggs was a bit surreal to say the least.  Despite having not seen each other for over ten years, and the fact I was ‘some distance’ from my office, he recognised me immediately.  After an initial slightly frosty reception he soon warmed and later chatted openly about his new life in Bulgaria and his ‘interests’ in birds and their eggs.

    The 16 birds' eggs seized from the home of ROSS.  All were taken in 2011 - bottom right is the egg of a griffon vulture  ( G Shorrock RSPB)

     

    In a small study we found just 16 birds’ eggs, all taken in 2011, which included the egg of a griffon vulture, a species given additional legal protection in Bulgaria (other eggs were six collared pratincole, five ortolan bunting and four blackcap).  There was also a selection of egg collecting equipment.

    Collared pratincole eggs and other items seized by the Bulgarian Police    (G Shorrock  RSPB)

     

    However, the real prize lay tucked away behind some artwork on the lounge wall.  Diaries and CD’s of photograph soon exposed exactly what he had been up to since he moved to Bulgaria in 2004.

    These records came as something of a shock to BSPB.  He had taken over a thousand eggs during his time in Bulgaria.  It was the eggs of a number of very rare breeding birds that caused particular concern.  In addition to the griffon vulture, the records indicated he had taken a clutch of the globally endangered Egyptian vulture.  This species has had a significant global decline in the last 20 years and the population in Bulgaria has now dropped to less than 30 pairs.  Despite the ongoing work on imperial eagles, and efforts to guard some of the nests, it appeared Mr Ross had helped himself to three clutches.

    Back at the police station, as the records were revealed, there was an understandable amount of swearing from my BSPB colleague.  Swearing sounds so much better with a Bulgarian accent.  As a seasoned veteran of many egg collecting enquiries, I tried to calm the situation and professionally explained we had to look more dispassionately at the situation and treat this information just as evidence.  A short while later I came across the records of clutches that had been taken in the UK until 2004, since his first collection had been taken off him in 1998.  Amongst an extensive haul listed as taken were five clutches of each of osprey,red kite and golden eagle, and most shockingly, two clutches of white-tailed eagle eggs from Scotland.  The Bulgarians were then treated to some rather non-dispassionate English swearing!

    It seemed very likely a large collection of UK and Bulgarian eggs was stashed away somewhere nearby.  However, with his involvement in property management, he had plenty of options available and we are still none the wiser where these may be hidden.

    Dimitar Gradinarov (BSPB) speaks with the media about the first egg collecting case in Bulgaria    (G Shorrock RSPB)

    The case attracted widespread media interest in Bulgaria, appearing on the front page of one of the main newspapers, plus plenty of interest back home in the UK.  I am not quite sure of what the local police made of a couple of TV crews turning up at the police station to film birds’ eggs.  Having spent some time back home trawling through the evidence, I returned to Bulgaria in April 2012 to make some field enquiries and work with a Bulgarian TV crew on the case.

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    The beautiful Rhodope mountains in Bulgaria - home to griffon and Egyptian vultures      (G Shorrock RSPB)

     

    We wanted to locate some of the sites Mr Ross had raided to demonstrate the accuracy and true nature of his records.  We travelled to the beautiful Rhodope mountains in south-east Bulgaria.  Using his records and photographs we located the crags from where Mr Ross had taken his griffon vulture egg in 2011.  It was a fairly remote spot and it took us some while scrambling around rocky terrain before we were able to precisely match his photograph of the nest ledge with the exact location.  We were also fortunate to visit a nearby vulture feeding station and had tremendous views of vultures squabbling over a carcase.

    Egyptian (front) and griffon vultures at a feeding station       (G Shorrock RSPB)

     

    We later located one of the imperial eagle nest sites raided by Ross and most interestingly an Egyptian vulture site near the town of Provadia in north-east Bulgaria.  An old cave monastery in the cliffs high above the town had been made into a minor tourist site with a bridge across a small gorge.  When a pair of Egyptian vultures started nesting the bridge was closed and iron mesh put over the entrance hole to allow the birds to nest in peace.  The diaries of Mr Ross described in detail how he had come to the site one evening in 2010 with his young son.  Using a crowbar he had managed to break one of the welds and make enough room for his young son to wriggle inside and take the two eggs for his father.

    RSPB officer Guy Shorrock accessing the former Egyptian vulture nest site - a bit of a tight squeeze!      (D Gradinarov BSPB)

    The broken weld was present exactly as described, and, with somewhat more difficultly than his young son,  I was just about able to wriggle through the gap myself.  I visited the open sided cave, now eerily quiet with the remnants of the old nest on the floor.  Being able to match parts of his diaries to the situation on the ground so accurately, showed these were genuine egg collecting records and not some work of fiction.

    BSPB officer at the former Egyptian vulture site raided by Ross in 2010      (G Shorrock RSPB)

     

    Unfortunately, unlike in the UK it appeared that without possession of the actual eggs taken before 2011, that no charges could be made for taking eggs based solely on the detailed diaries.  I asked the police what would happen if I admitted killing my wife in Bulgaria but hiding the body somewhere it could never be found.  I was told I could not be charged with that either!

    The UK legal system can be a bit tortuous at times but in Bulgaria things seem particularly difficult.  It was very difficult to get any information about what the Bulgarian prosecutors were up to and it was unfortunately my impression they were less than keen to be dealing with this strange enquiry.  After a series of long delays and apparent stalling, RSPB wrote strong letters of concern to the regional prosecutor and the Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia emphasizing the conservation importance of the case and the international media interest.  Whilst we had no reply to either, this seemed to do the trick and finally the matter proceeded to court nearly three years since the raid on his apartment.

    It appears his three previous convictions in the UK could not be taken into account.  However, today he received a jail sentence of six months suspended for three years and a fine of around £2000. We are informed for a first conviction of such an unusual crime this is a good result.  So Mr Ross is well and truly on the radar in Bulgaria.  Whether he continues to add to his collection, and potentially risk time in a Bulgarian jail, only time will tell.  The RSPB would like to place on record the tremendous help from BSPB and the Burgas Police during this investigation.

    A short video about the case can be seen here


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  • Singing in the rain

    What a glorious feeling

    I’m happy again

    Well for now at least.

    The 10 August 2014 was a very special day. It was Hen Harrier day - where over 500 ordinary men, women and children came out in the torrential rain to show their support for the plight of this spectacular yet beleaguered bird. People, some having travelled huge distances just to be there, who were all singing the same tune. 

    A soggy crowd in the Derwent Valley, Derbyshire show their support for the hen harrier

    Whilst H is for hen harrier, unfortunately in my job, H is usually for hunted, hounded, harried and heartache. I have lost count of the number of reports I have dealt with of hen harriers ‘mysteriously’ disappearing from their breeding sites on upland grouse moors. I have heard a toe curling account from a gamekeeper recounting to me in confidence how he and his colleagues shot around 30 hen harriers in a single year on just one estate. And perhaps, most poignantly, I have been there by myself in the early hours of a spring morning on a remote grouse moor watching as a female hen harrier was gunned down. Having pulled the pitiful corpse from where it had been hidden in the heather it was incredibly frustrating not to be able to get the necessary evidence to get the perpetrator to court.

    However, on the 10 August 2014 in the Derwent Valley in the Peak District National park, the home of many a raptor tragedy itself, H definitely stood for hope. Hope that normal everyday people could raise their voice and show their anger and frustration at the outrage we continue to suffer in our uplands. Hope that perhaps the government might now start to realise the shooting community is unable or unwilling to self police and look to bring in new regulation. Hope that one day this beautiful bird, and indeed many other raptors, will start to assume their rightful place in our environment.

    The message is clear!

    Hope is a wonderful thing, and while we have a very along way to go, today was a time to celebrate. The torrential downpour, the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha, did nothing to dampen the mood. Placards and banners were out in full force. My favourite was one from a hardened and passionate raptor study group worker who has endured the bitter battle against harriers and other raptors in the Forest of Bowland for many decades. It simply stated ‘Pleasure killers –There is no right way to do wrong’.

    The people speak

    Chris Packham and Mark Avery celebrating the moment

    Mark Avery has played a leading role in this initiative supported by RSPB, Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC) and many others. He spoke to enforce why we were all there and to thank everyone for such a fantastic show of support, albeit a rather soggy one. Chris Packham spoke eloquently and passionately about the dire situation for the hen harrier, comparing the killing of this bird to the destruction of a national treasure. Chris’ closing rally was ‘We will win’. Well, we have to – don’t we!

    Findlay Wilde speaks to the masses

    For me, perhaps stealing the show, it was a young Findlay Wilde outlining to the crowd why he built his fantastic model male hen harrier which graced the field below the dam. It is inspiring young people like this who we need to look to. It is people like these who need to help forge a generation which will simply not accept what has been deemed acceptable in our uplands for such a long time. Long after I am gone, we will need the likes of Findlay and many others to continue the fight for our precious wildlife heritage.

    The amazing male hen harrier model made by Findlay and his brother

    Hurricane Bertha did nothing to dampen spirits

    So whilst the force of Hurricane Bertha slows ebbs away, hopefully there will be a new storm brewing. Hopefully one which will howl across our countryside blowing away what is both criminal and simply unacceptable in a modern day society. Whilst I am no Gene Kelly, I did at least have a bit of spring in my step as I splashed my way through the puddles back to the car park.

    Hope is indeed a wonderful thing.

  • If you go down to the woods

    Guy Shorrock RSPB Senior Investigations Officer reports on a recent prosecution.

    When Ed McBride went for one of his brisk early morning walks on a lovely day in August last year, he had no idea of the big surprise that lay ahead. Taking a slightly different route than usual he reached the corner of a large block of woodland on the edge of some farmland just to the west of Kingsclere in Hampshire.

    At the corner of a pheasant release pen he saw a tawny owl hanging upside, one of its legs crushed in a metal spring trap, which had been tied to the corner post. He initially thought the bird was dead but on closer inspection found it was still just alive.

    Spring traps can legally be used under cover to kill small mammals such as rats and stoats which may be a problem to gamekeepers and farmers etc. They are a trap closed by a very powerful spring and designed to kill small mammals quickly and humanely. However, it is totally illegal to set these devices in the open. Traditionally a metal spring trap, known as a ‘pole trap’, was designed for actually catching birds of prey when perching on vantage points. This gruesome device was actually outlawed way back in 1904. Despite that, the practice has still continued in quiet places on some game shooting estates using a modern day spring trap. Pheasant pens, which hold large numbers of young pheasants prior to the shooting season, naturally attract predatory birds and animals. The RSPB get a few reports of pole traps in most years, the majority of which take place at pheasant release pens.

    Being unfamiliar with the operation of the trap, Mr McBride struggled for around 10 minutes before he was able to release the bird from the trap. He had nothing in which to carry the bird so, collecting the spring trap, he quickly made his way home to report the matter to the police and RSPB. As soon as the report came in, a colleague and myself set about getting our equipment together, organise a vehicle and set off in haste for Hampshire. En route, it was clear Hampshire Constabulary were having problems getting an officer allocated to the matter. This is no criticism of the police, it is simply the reality of many over-stretched police forces having to prioritise the huge array of calls that get reported to them.

    We met Mr McBride and were shown the disassembled spring trap ominously covered in blood and small feathers. It was clear there would be still a short wait for the police, so having cleared the situation with them, we made our way to the wood just in case the owl was still present. It didn't take long to find the bird sat quietly on the ground a few metres away from where it had been trapped.

    Tawny owl near to death following injuries from an unlawfully set spring trap in August 2013

    We had no idea how long the bird had struggled in the trap, but its complete lack of energy suggested it was not going to survive. It had severe injuries to its left leg, typical of the brutal damage that spring traps can cause when used unlawfully. We were fortunate to be able to be quickly seen by a local vet, and following an examination the outcome was inevitable. The bird was given a lethal injection and finally put to peace.

    So that was the start of the enquiry that led to local self-employed gamekeeper Mark Stevens. A further police visit to the same location in September found a second spring trap fastened to the same post. This time it was on a small platform partially covered with a piece of mesh. I have seen hundreds of spring traps, but never one set like this. The way the trap was covered was totally inadequate and a number of bird species could potentially have hopped onto the trap with disastrous results. Birds weighing less than a starling have been known to trigger these traps.

    Hampshire Constabulary with Mark Stevens at the trapping site in September 2013

    Stevens maintained this trap, and the one that caught the tawny owl in August, had actually been set for a troublesome squirrel which had been taking grain out of a feeder provided for his pheasants. Based on events described by Mr McBride and having worked on these enquiries for many years I have my own view of what may have been taking place. However, whatever the intentions of Mr Stevens, the fact remains he set two spring traps in an unlawful manner and one of these resulted in a pretty unpleasant death for a tawny owl. Some video clips of the enquiry can be viewed here.

    Following some really good work by Hampshire Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), on the 31 July 2014, Stevens pleaded guilty to two charges of using spring traps in a non-approved manner ( contrary to Section 8(1)(a) Pests Act 1954).  He was fined £700 and £650 costs.

    After 22 years of dealing with these issues, my own view is that it is primarily parts of the shooting industry, who employ and then either fail to manage properly or worse instruct gamekeepers to commit offences, who are the main cause of this ongoing problem. It appears they are unwilling or unable to self-police, and indeed many remain in denial about the serious conservation impacts of persecution for species like eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines.  I believe those organisations that represent gamekeepers need to do more to ensure the next generation fresh out of college are not placed in a situation where their future job prospects may be dependent on being expected to commit criminal offences. 

    In addition to these wider problems, the actions of individual gamekeepers like Mr Stevens do nothing to help the image of the gamekeeping profession. I am sure many law abiding gamekeepers must despair at the way their profession continues to be portrayed. Unfortunately, I expect there will be plenty more unwanted surprises for members of the public like Mr McBride before we make serious inroads into this problem.