26 August 2009
Image: Graham Catley
It has been illegal to take the eggs of most wild birds since the Protection of Birds Act 1954 and it is illegal to possess or control any wild birds' eggs taken since that time under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
It is illegal to sell any wild bird's egg, irrespective of its age.
Possession of wild birds' eggs is an offence of strict liability. Anyone that chooses to be in possession of eggs is obliged to show, on a balance of probabilities, that their possession is lawful. For persons found guilty of any of these offences, Magistrates have the power to impose maximum sentences of £5,000 fine and/or six month's imprisonment per egg.
Despite the fact that legislation prohibiting the taking of certain wild birds' eggs has been in existence since 1880, the practice continues and, in the case of particularly rare birds, it can have serious implications for their conservation. Rare breeding species particularly vulnerable to egg collectors include Slavonian and black-necked grebes, ospreys, white-tailed eagles, red kites and red-necked phalaropes.
Collectors can devote their life to the pursuit of eggs and can become obsessed with the practice. They usually take the whole clutch of eggs, and may return for a second clutch. Rare species of birds are often targeted. An egg will rot if the contents are left inside, so eggs must be 'blown'. Collectors will take eggs at every stage of incubation, although freshly laid eggs are preferred as it is easier to blow out the yolk and the white of the egg.
Since the introduction of custodial sentences for these offences by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, a number of collectors have been sent to prison for up to six months. This appears to have had a positive effect in reducing egg-collecting activity in the UK and in 2008, the RSPB received just 36 reported incidents of egg collecting and egg thefts.
When compared to the 41 reports received in 2007, and that an average number of 66 reports were received between 2003 and 2007, this appears to be part of an encouraging downward trend that shows egg collecting is on the decline.
In spite of these encouraging signs, however, there are still active collectors at large and a number of significant illegally held collections. There is no doubt that with the passage of time more cases will come to light and there is some evidence that egg collectors are now operating increasingly abroad.
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