As part of my continuing reflection on wildlife crimes, I repeat here the first part of a story as told to me by Sgt Pete Charleston, North Wales Police (now retired), for my book The Thin Green Line. It was one of the many successes of Operation Easter, a UK-wide operation to deal with egg thieves that I ran as Tayside Police wildlife crime officer from 1997 to my retiral in 2011. Even though it could not be proved that the men were there to take the eggs (which undoubtedly was the case) they had disturbed the bird and caused it to desert its clutch of eggs – the same effect to our natural heritage in the end.
Operation Easter is still in place, and the interest world-wide in the strange obsession with some of the UK residents to collect the eggs of our rarest birds was reinforced yesterday (Wed 30 January) when I received an email then a phone call at the National Wildlife Crime Unit office from a reporter from the New Yorker, keen to write an article to enlighten American citizens to our strangest of criminal pursuits.
The Case of the Disturbed Goshawk
One of the duties of a wildlife and environmental crime officer, under the heading of education and of general awareness-raising, involves giving presentations to a wide range of clubs and societies. This suited Pete Charleston fine:
“This is an area of work that I particularly enjoy as many a good discussion takes place and they are well worth doing, though in many instances there is always an element of preaching to the converted. Sometimes, however, you get rather more than might be anticipated.
One particular talk took me to a country pub and a very well attended meeting with an obviously well informed audience. Things were going well and I got onto the subject of the national police operation, Operation Easter, directed against the collectors of wild bird eggs. I was illustrating how obsessive many collectors are and how far they travel to take eggs. In particular I related a tale as to how a known egg collector had been seen acting suspiciously around a lake on Anglesey and only a few days later had been seen acting suspiciously around a Scottish golden eagle nest.
At the end of the account a hand arose at the rear of the room and, having always tried to encourage questions, I paused only to be told that I could not recount the tale because the person had not been convicted of any offences in relation to either incident. I think that that was the only time I had ever spoken to an audience that included a known egg collector and this just went to demonstrate that care needs to be taken not to identify or slander individuals. On that occasion I had not identified the man in question and had he not identified himself nobody present would have been any the wiser as to who had been involved. Quite bizarrely the individual in question, who I will refer to as Mr Brown, did write to me after the meeting demanding a written apology or legal proceedings would follow. He did not get his apology and I never received a summons. Thereafter I received quite regular correspondence from him where I was assured that he had ceased associating with known egg collectors and was now working against them and in the furtherance of conservation. As such he sought a licence allowing him to disturb rare birds for the purposes of photography. Perhaps not the ideal applicant!”
Some years later, in May 2006, local police officers were investigating a break-in to a sailing club at Llyn Brenig, an upland reservoir and country park. As part of their investigations they made a number of checks of vehicles parked in the area and came up with one that was thought to be of interest to Operation Easter.
Without giving away too much of the operational procedures of Operation Easter, the next step for the officers was to contact the author, who administers the operation nationally, in Tayside. I was quickly able to tell the North Wales officers about the owner of the car, his associates, and what to look for if they decided to search the car. Few beat officers are aware of the significance of some of the paraphernalia used by wild bird egg thieves. I advised them of the relevance of small drills and small glass tubes in the blowing of the egg contents, of the relevance of maps, especially with any markings on them that might indicate nest sites, of items that might be innocuous in other circumstances, such as cotton wool or toilet paper, or of climbing or abseiling equipment, cameras and film or memory cards. Most importantly I advised them of their police powers available to search the car and the occupant, to seize any items that they thought were of evidential value, and of the fact that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 gave them a power of arrest if that was required. From my knowledge of Mr Brown I advised the officers that they should contact Pete Charleston without delay and if possible have him join them.
From the officers checking the car registration number in North Wales to contacting me in Tayside and getting the information that would help their on-the-spot investigation took no more than five minutes. Very quickly the North Wales officers learned that the car was owned by the man who had interrupted the flow of Pete’s country pub presentation! Once they had learned this information they approached the car and found that the man sitting in it was not Mr Brown but another man who was a known egg collector who we’ll call Mr Black. A search of Mr Black and his car produced nothing of interest, but when questioned, Mr Black told the officers that Mr Brown was with him but had gone off into the adjacent forest to take photographs.
Pete was immediately informed of the contact and from 40 miles away made a dash for Llyn Brenig and the forest. En route he was able to make contact with a good friend and raptor study group member who monitors the population of birds of prey in the area. Not only was he prepared to provide assistance to Pete but he downed tools at once and made a similar dash for Llyn Brenig.
(Part 2 tomorrow)