Investigations

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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • How much for an eagle?

    What value you would put on a fantastic bird like a white-tailed eagle? 

    I suspect many would simply say priceless.  At the other extreme, a few misguided individuals may be all too eager to see these birds, and other similar species, removed off the face of our landscape.  I believe most people can appreciate the importance of protecting our environment, whether it be for the food, water, air and resources it provides, or purely for its aesthetic and intrinsic value and benefits for wildlife tourism and employment.

    However, putting a financial value on a free living animal or a piece of habitat would appear to be no easy thing.  However, in Finland it appears they have started to look at the value of the environment to society and introduced a form of environmental compensation legislation.  So the value of white-tailed eagle has been assessed as worth 6,400 euros.  Consequently the killing of this bird, or taking of its eggs, could make an individual liable to compensate society for the damage caused.  I am not entirely convinced about assigning values in this manner, but I suspect it certainly focuses the mind of some people about the environmental crimes they may be considering to commit.

    In 2009, I assisted the UK authorities with the start of an egg collecting enquiry that revealed a whole network of people involved in the illegal trading of birds’ eggs.  Some of these were egg thieves themselves, others happy to build their own collections from the criminal endeavours of such people.  Two men were convicted in the UK, both receiving suspended jail sentences.  The trading web, spread through the internet, reached to the US, Australia and also a little closer to home in Sweden.  Following information from the UK authorities, over 6,000 birds’ eggs were seized and in January 2014 three men in Sweden were sentenced for their part in this strange network of criminals.  One received a jail term of a year, the others substantial fines - see here.

    The Swedish authorities were assisted by experienced ornithologists, in the same way RSPB have long assisted the UK authorities.  Their knowledge helped bring a further individual in Finland in to the limelight and this led to another seizure of over 9000 birds’ eggs.  The Finnish authorities were supported in their enquiries by the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit.

     

    Birds ' eggs and other items seized in Finland in the autumn of 2011

    So after another long investigation and trial, on 20 February 2015 a Finnish man was convicted on charges relating to over 5,000 eggs.  He too received a jail term of a year.  However, it was the environmental compensation penalty of an eye-watering 250,000 euros that took centre stage.  Apparently the prosecutor had asked for over twice this sum.  As a business man, the defendant presumably has the assets to cover this, however it is perhaps no surprise he has since appealed.  Whatever, the merits of the Finnish approach, I believe there is no doubt that there is a need in all societies to find some mechanism to impress upon those committing environmental damage that their actions will not be tolerated and they will be held accountable.

    Here in the UK there are huge areas of the uplands, where, due to the selfish hands of a relative few, the landscape remains deprived of viable populations of some of our most spectacular and iconic birds of prey.  Catching a few of the responsible individuals every year, usually local gamekeepers, with the typical outcome of a modest fine has, it seems, for decades done little to affect the mindset of their often wealthy employers.

    However, in January this year Aberdeenshire gamekeeper George Mutch became the first person to receive actual custody for crimes against birds of prey.  A tragedy for him as an individual, but this is something that has unfortunately been coming as the catalogue of incidents has continued and public outcry has increased.  The managers and employers within the shooting industry who have been involved with these crimes appear to have ignored the signs; perhaps the chances of being held personally accountable were considered so low and they were aware that it was far more likely a member of staff would be the one to take the fall.  This conviction may at least last start to focus the minds of some individuals who have until now felt relatively secure behind the financial resources and status of their employers.  Perhaps some may start to question what their paymasters would ask of them.  I struggle to believe loyalty extends as far as a jail cell.

    I suspect even more relevant is that a month earlier in December 2014, Scotland saw the first conviction for an employer being held vicariously liable for a member of his staff who committed crimes against raptors.   It has been disappointing that there seems to be a distinct lack of appetite to bring in comparable legislation in other parts of the UK.  The incident also led to the landowner losing around £66,000 of agricultural subsidies, far more than any financial penalty likely to be imposed by a court.   Like many, I hope these parallel landmark events will now start to usher in a new era of accountability across the Scottish countryside.   The RSPB also believe a registration process for driven grouse shooting, where the most serious problems lie, should also be considered.  This could mean that crimes against raptors leading to the loss of the ability to run a shooting business for certain periods.  Such an approach to focus the minds of errant sporting estates would help build on the recent momentum and promote good practice and responsibility.

    Ultimately, only time will tell whether the priceless shadow of the eagle will fall more frequently across our land.

  • How bad does it have to get?

    On the 1 October 2014, at Norwich Magistrates Court, Allen Lambert, a gamekeeper formerly on the Stody Estate in Norfolk, was found guilty of two charges relating to the killing of 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk and possession of pesticides and other items to prepare poisoned baits.  He had earlier pleaded guilty to five charges relating to the possession of nine dead buzzards, possession and use of banned pesticides (mevinphos and aldicarb) and breach of a firearms certificate.  This was a really good team effort with Norfolk Constabulary supported by Natural England, HSE, Fera, NWCU, CPS, RSPB, RSPCA, BTO and local ornithologist Richard Porter..

    Today he was sentenced for those crimes. He received 10 weeks jail (suspended for a year) for poisoning 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk and 6 weeks jail (also suspended for a year) for possessing 9 dead buzzards and firearms offences. Lambert was ordered to pay £930 costs and a victim surcharge of £80. In sentencing, the District Judge Peter Veits criticised the running of shooting estates. He said, “Those who employ gamekeepers have a strict duty to know what is being done in their name and on their property. They also have a duty to ensure that their gamekeepers are properly trained and capable of keeping abreast of the complex laws relating to the use of poisons. “In other industries, employers as well as the employee could be facing prosecution in such cases and I hope therefore that this case can serve as a wakeup call to all who run estates as to their duties.” He added, “It is clear that the buzzard population in Norfolk is increasing and this is something to be applauded and not seen an inconvenience by those who choose to run shoots.”

    The case came to light in April 2013. Every year the RSPB receive hundreds of reports from the public about possible crimes against wild birds. Assessing these is not always easy and some well intentioned reports, such as a pile of dead raptors, turn out to be something quite innocent, like a pile of lawfully shot pheasants. However, on the 3 April 2013 a report of some 'dead buzzards' in a wood on the Stody Estate, near Holt in Norfolk sounded worth following up. On the following bitterly cold morning I left home just after 6.00 am and drove to Norfolk.

    Dead raptors found on the Stody Estate, Norfolk in April 2013 (G Shorrock RSPB)

     

    I went to a wood on the Stody estate and discovered the corpses of four buzzards, a sparrowhawk and a tawny owl. All but one appeared to have been left at one spot and things were looking very suspicious. It was clear pheasant rearing was taking place in the area. I collected all the carcases, carefully bagging and labeling them.  My next stop was the at RSPCA centre at East Winch. I was very lucky that the staff were able to squeeze my unannounced visit into their busy schedule. Their x-rays showed no obvious signs of the birds being shot. However, one of the fresher buzzard carcases clearly had food in it crop. Birds don’t normally die in the middle of a meal! I was immediately concerned that illegal poisoning may be involved.

    At least one of the x-rayed buzzards showed signs of food in the crop (G Shorrock RSPB)

    I contacted Dr Ed Blane at Natural England (NE). NE are involved with the HSE Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme which is set up to assess whether wild animals, pets and beneficial insects have been poisoned. This can range from the improper use of legal products through to the deliberate and indiscriminate placing of poison baits in the open countryside. Ed, with years of experience in this area, leapt into action and quickly contacted Norfolk Constabulary to arrange a follow up search on the Stody estate. In these sorts of case, there is often considerable benefit in prompt action and sometimes cases languish far too long without any meaningful action. I had a mad dash to drop off the corpses at the post-mortem laboratory in Bury St Edmunds then back up to Holt Police station where Ed had a small posse of eager police officers already assembled and briefed. Local enquiries had established that gamekeeper Charles Lambert was the gamekeeper on the Stody Estate.

    On arrival at Lambert’s home near Hunworth, he was not home, but arrived in his Landrover a few minutes later. The police and Natural England carefully outlined the process of the search that would take place. In his Landrover we soon found a small pesticide container. Ed, as usual, was suspicious and tipped out a small quantity for examination. It certainly wasn’t what it said on the tin, and we both immediately thought we had hit the jackpot as the product looked like a banned product which contained the highly toxic pesticide aldicarb. This was confirmed by later analysis by the government Fera laboratory. This agricultural product was withdrawn in 2007, though continues to feature in a number of wildlife poisoning cases. We also found between the front seats, and immediately to hand, a metal container of Phosdrin. This highly toxic insecticide contains the active ingredient mevinphos. This substance was banned way back in 1993 and was historically regularly abused for poisoning wildlife. Nearly two decades on, and despite government funded schemes to encourage the handing over of such unapproved products, this substance still turns up nearly every year in wildlife poisoning cases. We found two further containers of Phosdrin in his unlocked garage. Particularly significant was the presence of a syringe and a number of needles with one container; in the trade this is known as a ‘poisoner’s kit’ and typically used to inject a pesticide into a suitable bait such as eggs or carrion.

    Container of the banned pesticide mevinphos with a syringe and needles (G Shorrock RSPB)

    However, without doubt the most shocking find was the contents of a plastic bag on top of Lambert’s quad bike parked next to his Landrover. A quick peek inside was enough to know this was significant. So with the video camera rolling, Ed carefully emptied the contents onto polythene sheeting laid out on the ground. In total, the pitiful corpses of nine buzzards were laid out in a row. In all my years I had never seen anything like this, and was fully expecting the result that came back from the laboratory. All nine birds had been poisoned and tested positive for the banned pesticide mevinphos. I suspect these birds had been poisoned on the estate and cleared up by Lambert. The Fera laboratory also confirmed that at least one buzzard and one sparrowhawk I had picked up from the wood that morning also had been poisoned by mevinphos.  The forensic work done by Fera toxicologists , quietly tucked away in a laboratory near York, is absolutely essential and their rigorous attention to detail is the bedrock of all wildlife poisoning convictions and it is vital the government continue to support this work. 

    RSPB Investigations Officer with nine illegally poisoned buzzards found at Lambert's home (E Blane NE)

     

    Mr Lambert was interviewed and whilst admitting possession of the pesticides and the occasional illegal use for ‘a tricky fox’ or wasps, he denied poisoning any of the birds of prey we had recovered that day. My day finally finished at 04.15 am, some 22 hours since I had left home. A police Sergeant kindly lent me some blankets. In the old days I could probably have used an empty cell, however modern police stations don’t really cater for guests. So I grabbed a couple of hours under a desk in an empty office until some rather bemused cleaning staff found me.  As I returned home the following morning I reflected on a comment that Lambert had made during his interview when he suggested that 9 out of 10 gamekeepers in Norfolk would have Phosdrin (mevinphos) in their shed. Whilst I have no doubt this was a clear exaggeration, what is abundantly clear is that far too many gamekeepers, on far too many shooting estates, are still illegally keeping and using these sorts of products. It has been illegal to place poisoned baits in the countryside for just over 100 years, but the shooting industry has not really shown much signs of getting its house in order.

    The RSPB Birdcrime report for 2013 came out last week with the usual depressing catalogue of illegally poisoned, shot and trapped raptors. These are of course only the reported incidents, forming the tip of an undoubtedly very large iceberg. As usual it was not well received by parts of the shooting industry, who would no doubt prefer such information to be swept under the carpet. I believe it would be far more helpful if they expended their energies in trying to clean up the problems within their own industry. What about the enthusiastic fresh faced 16 years old trainee gamekeeper who arrives on an estate, simply wanting to do his job, and then placed in an impossible position where he feels he has no choice but to break the law or have no future employment? It is these people, at the start of what could be a very long career, who need to be set the right example and allowed to go about their lawful work.

    What Mr Lambert did was undoubtedly bad, but I believe he, and many others, are simply the product of an industry that has failed to give our wildlife and countryside the respect it deserves. How long do we have to suffer these antiquated, dangerous and inexcusable practices in our countryside? Another 100 years?

    The start of 2012 saw the introduction of vicarious liability in Scotland in an attempt to try to make managers and employers more accountable for the actions of their staff. Whilst far too early to know if this will be effective, it is a step in the right direction. Disappointingly, the government have failed to show any enthusiasm for bringing in similar legislation outside Scotland. We have seen the hen harrier become nearly extinct as a breeding species in England, despite habitat for over 300 pairs. Golden eagles, red kites and peregrines are still significantly affected by illegal persecution. What I would really like to know is just how bad do things have to get before the government will actually start standing up for nature. When will they start to create a climate, using suitable legislative and financial pressure, to make errant sporting estates start getting into line and really start making raptor persecution a thing of the past.

     Unfortunately, despite the insightful comments of the judge, I suspect we still have a very long way to go, and the deaths of many more raptors and other protected wildlife, before we turn a meaningful corner.

    Video of the discovery of the dead buzzards can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL8-1cyH3QY

  • 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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