When the two arrived they found an empty car, and faced the daunting task of trying to find two people in a forest of some 40,000 hectares. They set out into the forest more in hope than in confidence but soon found a Forestry Commission gang who told them that they had seen two people who were probably the suspects walking along one of the forest tracks. With that piece of information Pete and his friend were able to guess that a goshawk nest in the forest that had been the subject of nest robberies in previous years might be the target yet again.
Making their way to the area where they knew the goshawk nest to be, they continued through the dense larch forest until in a glade they saw two men, their two suspects, standing together gathering up equipment and not more than twenty metres away from a large nest. They approached Mr Brown and Mr Black and Pete made it clear to them that he wanted to know what they were about. Pete recounts, “It was pretty much at this time that I began to regret the quick exit from the office as here I was somewhere in a very large forest, with two males whose temperament was not known, without the personal equipment I normally carried: truncheon, handcuffs etc. I don’t know if it ever occurred to the individuals quite how vulnerable I was but in the event they were both gentlemen. Brown said that he had been walking in the forest and had spotted a buzzard nest. He had decided to set up a hide and take photographs of the buzzard when it returned to the nest. Black said that having been spoken to by the Police he had decided to find his friend and make him aware of the Police interest. He had been able to do so as each of them had a two-way radio.”
Both men and their equipment were searched and Pete found a camera with a remote control and some camouflage netting. However, hidden in the leaf litter beside the men were two rolls of film, which when eventually developed showed pictures of three eggs and a Goshawk sitting on a nest. On the basis of the film having been hidden both men were arrested and taken to the local Police station. When he was interviewed, Brown maintained that he had stumbled across a buzzard nest and had decided to take photographs. Black’s account was that he had only gone to tell his mate of the police interest.
The knowledge of the law shown by such people is impressive. Clearly Brown was prepared to admit to taking photographs of a buzzard on its nest in the knowledge that the species, being a common bird, is not as heavily protected by law as is a goshawk, a much rarer bird. It is not therefore an offence to disturb a buzzard on a nest through photography but it is an offence to disturb a nesting goshawk.
The Law on Disturbing Rare Birds
The rarest of birds in the UK are listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside. This means that it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb them while they are building a nest, or are in, on or near their nest if it contains eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of a Schedule 1 bird. Many of the birds of prey are included in this schedule, including honey buzzard, hobby, all species of harriers, barn owl, peregrine, the golden and white-tailed eagle, and of course the goshawk. Various other Schedule 1 species feature regularly in the illegal exploits of egg thieves, in particular chough, dotterel, kingfisher, red-necked phalarope, greenshank and woodlark.
When the police charge an egg thief they separate out any charges that relate to Schedule 1 birds from charges that might relate to other birds. In addition, a report outlining the conservation impact of committing offences against these birds is prepared for the court so that the sheriff or magistrate is aware of what effect the taking of eggs might have on the species as a whole and sentence accordingly. It is rare now for anyone taking or possessing Schedule 1 birds’ egg not to be sentenced to imprisonment.
When asked about the species of bird that had returned to the nest they had been watching, Brown said that his vision had been obscured by other trees. He had been hidden and had heard a bird coming to the nest, so using his remote control had taken photographs with a camera that he had located in a tree adjacent to the nest tree.
To try to ensure that the birds were not disturbed at the nest, which could easily result in their abandonment of the nest after all of this activity, Pete decided it would not be revisited for a further two weeks.
Pete in the meantime contacted the RSPB. Their database showed a goshawk nest in this area had been raided by a notorious Liverpudlian egg collector in 1999. He had been convicted a few years later when a large collection of eggs and his egg collecting records, going back many years, had been recovered during a raid at his home. Checking their files the RSPB found they even had the photographs taken in 1999 at the time of the raid by the egg collector. These showed it was the very same nest! Also of significance was that during a police search under warrant on the home of Mr Black earlier in 2006, a mobile phone had been recovered which was sent off for analysis. This showed Mr Black had been in recent contact with the Liverpudlian egg collector and exchanged some very interesting text messages about breeding birds. It seemed a very strange coincidence that Mr Brown and Mr Black should be found at the same nest in a remote forest a few weeks later. The RSPB database also provided the previous convictions of both men for egg collecting and disturbance of rare breeding birds, which was introduced as ‘bad character evidence’ at the subsequent trial.
Two weeks later Pete returned along with members of RSPB’s investigations unit, who were to provide invaluable assistance to the investigation. The crime scene was measured and photographed, exactly as is done in any other investigation where accurate data are likely to be required by a court. Unfortunately it was found that the nest had been abandoned so the tree was climbed by one of the RSPB officers (hardly any wildlife crime officers would be capable of this) and the infertile eggs collected and sent away for further scientific examination. Examination of the embryos in the eggs showed that their state of development was such that abandonment of the nest had occurred on the day of the disturbance.
So was it pure chance that led Mr Brown to find one of very few Goshawk nests in a very large forest; that the nest in question had been robbed in previous years; that a person from the same English city as these two men had been convicted in an earlier year of taking eggs from that nest and that all three men were known to associate with each other? Pete was being asked to believe that it was all pure chance, but wisely decided not to do so and charged both with intentional or reckless disturbance of a nesting goshawk.
During interview Mr Brown also admitted knowing the Liverpudlian egg collector and even admitted tracking him down having seen his conviction on TV. He admitted speaking to him very recently about rare breeding birds but denied ever being given details of actual nest sites. When it was put to him that the ‘buzzard’ nest he had ‘accidentally’ found in the huge Clocaenog forest was the very goshawk nest raided by the Liverpudlian egg collector back in 1999 he replied “It’s a small world”.
When Mr Black appeared at Llandudno Magistrates’ Court on 30 April 2007 he continued to maintain that he had not known what Mr Brown was doing and was eventually found not guilty. Brown pleaded not guilty and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the court of his bird misidentification story. He was found guilty and was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment, suspended for a year, plus £800 costs. In an innovative approach by the court he was also banned from entering nature reserves for a period of twelve months.
Pete has the last word, “Since that date I have had no further correspondence with Mr Brown, and he appears to have abandoned his application for a licence to photograph our rare bird species”.
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