Egg thieves on Orkney – the Bumbling Brothers

I have just helped organise a press release for Operation Easter, the UK-wide operation to deal with egg thieves, formerly co-ordinated by me at Tayside Police now back in my remit at the National Wildlife Crime Unit. Here is one of the earlier successes of the operation. It follows on from an earlier egg collecting tale told in this chapter of The Thin Green Line:

Some years earlier, in 1997, the point was much more forcibly made by a sheriff that he was frustrated by the absence of a power under which he could send a wildlife criminal to jail.  I’ll return to David Dawson to relate the tale of two men I called at the time the Bumbling Brothers, and of their conviction that was a major boost at the time to the embryonic Operation Easter.

“During the afternoon of Monday 26th May 1997 I received a telephone call from Keith Fairclough, RSPB Reserves Manager in Orkney. Keith voiced his suspicions about two men seen acting suspiciously on the Birsay Moors reserve. So as not to draw undue attention to himself, Keith, a canny Liverpudlian, had the presence of mind to take a spade from his van and began digging close to the site of a peat bank, all the time observing the behaviour of the men.

Initially wary of the presence of a third party on the remote hillside, the men soon returned to their activity, comfortable in the thought that the man with the spade was merely a crofter cutting his winter fuel. The pair was seen to effectively ‘quarter’ certain areas of the moor, clearly in search of something at ground level. Given the locality’s importance as a breeding site for a number of important species such as hen harrier and whimbrel, it was fairly evident that the men were seeking nests.

After a while, by which time the men had disappeared from view over a ridge, Keith abandoned his ‘peat-cutting’ and after returning to his van drove along the road for a short distance where he found a parked and unattended rather battered old Ford Escort car. Noting the registration number and having his suspicions further raised by the clear presence of ropes, maps and outdoor gear in the back of the car, Keith returned to his office and contacted me. A PNC check on the vehicle aroused no immediate concerns other than the fact that the somewhat rickety car was registered to a Portsmouth address.

Some rapid investigative work between Keith and myself soon established that two men of the same name as the registered keeper had taken up a week’s residence in a static caravan close adjacent to the village shop in Evie, the community near to the RSPB reserve. Accompanied by Sergeant Nigel Stafford, I drove over to the village of Evie and paid a visit to the caravan. With no vehicle present and the caravan locked it was apparent that the men had not yet returned.

A glance through the window drew my attention to a scrap of paper lying on top of the television set. On it was written the words “7.30 – BBC2 Snowdonia programme”. In itself such a note was unremarkable. However, it had also been my intention to record that same programme as it was actually a documentary about the work of the RSPB in North Wales and in particular the conflict with egg collectors…..

Although we possessed little in the way of any firm evidence, other than a potential disturbance offence at the hen harrier breeding site, it was decided to obtain a search warrant with which to arm ourselves when we visited the caravan later that evening.

Taking a completed warrant to a local JP (a farmer noted for his conservation credentials…) it was duly granted with the words, “We can’t have thieves like these robbing Orkney of its heritage!”

Later that same evening, accompanied by Nigel Stafford and Keith Fairclough (named on the warrant) we made a second visit to the caravan. The door was opened by a seemingly bemused young man, who I’ll simply refer to as Lee. Also present was a second man who, it transpired, was Lee’s younger brother, Jamie. The reason for our visit was explained and I read the contents of the warrant to them.

Both agreed to have the caravan and their car searched, although there was nothing that they could have done if that had not suited them!

After a few minutes of fruitless searching, Keith pointed to the bench upon which Jamie was sitting and asked if there was a compartment beneath.

Oh n..no…no..” stammered Jamie, “there’s nothing under here..”

I then moved over and asked Jamie if he could stand up to allow us to fully inspect the seating area. Of course, like most caravans, there was a substantial compartment beneath the cushioned seats and when raised it could be seen that the contents were three cardboard boxes. I carefully lifted one out and opened it, to reveal a cotton wool and paper nest containing a clutch of white, very round eggs that looked suspiciously like a clutch of (blown) hen harrier eggs. I looked around to where the brothers stood with what could only be described as a look of horror etched on their faces and was met with a “what can one say?” shrug from Jamie.

This first box contained two complete clutches of hen harrier eggs. The remaining boxes were found to hold single clutches of merlin and red-throated diver eggs, together with an assortment of single eggs including dunlin, starling, fulmar and curlew.

As we had now to confirm their identity and address status, together with a closer inspection of their vehicle, it was decided to detain them and return to Kirkwall Police Station. There, a search of the car uncovered ropes, binoculars, and a range of OS maps – one of which (interestingly enough) pertained to Snowdonia and had pen marks indicating the site of peregrine eyries.

Whilst Hampshire Police set about the task of checking addresses and ultimately searching the addresses for further egg collections, we attempted an interview with the hapless ‘oologists’. Lee remained tight-lipped with a series of ‘no comment’ responses to any questions. Jamie, by contrast, felt the need to get things of his chest and after describing how they had never collected eggs in the past but had done so merely on a whim during their trip to Orkney, did finally admit that his brother “might have some more (eggs) hidden in a wall cupboard behind his bed!”

After some initial delays in obtaining search warrants in Portsmouth it was not until the early hours of the following morning that the pair were released, by which time the Hampshire wildlife crime officer had recovered a substantial egg collection at Lee’s address.

Unfortunately for the brothers, they had made the mistake of recording their Scottish trip on a camcorder, the tape of which depicted them climbing a cliff and removing a fulmar’s egg, not to mention Lee, at one point, looking around warily and suggesting, ”I think we’d better go. This looks like an RSPB place….” For two who claimed to be merely keen ‘birders’ they seemed to demonstrate an unhealthy phobia of the RSPB.

At the end of the investigation the brothers were finally charged with over 70 offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Their vehicle and assorted equipment were also retained as productions.

Next day the duo attended Kirkwall Sheriff Court where they faced Honorary Sheriff Bill Wright (a retired Procurator Fiscal at Kirkwall and former procurator fiscal depute in Perth). Both pleaded guilty to all charges with the exception of one that related to the use of their car, which was accepted by the Crown. (The truth being that the fiscal did not wish to deny them a means by which to leave Orkney!)

I did not attend court as I had been struck down with a most vicious viral infection that thankfully only took hold after I had submitted the crime report. Late that afternoon, I received a telephone call at home from Keith Adam, the then Procurator Fiscal. “Have I got news for you!” Keith chuckled down the line, “The brothers have been hit for six! Go on – guess how much they’ve been fined.”

Scottish courts, at that time, were not well known for levelling hefty penalties for wildlife crime offences, hence my response of “£1,000 each?”

“Oh, higher than that!” laughed Keith.

After a guessing game which left me gasping at a £10,000 ‘guesstimate’, Keith finally said, “Multiply that by nine and you have the total fine – and that applies equally to both.”

£180,000 in total. It was music to my ears. If that didn’t send out a message to eggers planning an Orkney trip, I failed to see what could. It was widely accepted that the sheriff was making the point that he should have the opportunity in law to impose a prison sentence on wildlife criminals, a legislative change that was still six years distant.

Naturally, after the excitement wore off it became reasonable to assume that such penalties would not be sustained. That proved correct as a subsequent appeal reduced the fines to £6,000 and £4,000 respectively. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Orkney proved, in years to come, less attractive to eggers than it previously had been.

The brothers, whilst virtual amateurs in the egg collecting field (with no known connections to other, better known, collectors and employing very rudimentary means by which to blow eggs taken etc.) did, however, cause Orkney’s natural environment some degree of damage. At that time, we had a breeding population of approximately 20 pairs of merlin – a species already facing massive threats from other factors, not to mention a most fragile hen harrier population.

Had the brothers been successful in evading detection and had stayed their planned week (they had actually only been on the island less than 48 hours) the damage they might have wrought could have been devastating”.

As I said just before David started to narrate the tale of the Bumbling Brothers (who bizarrely spelled their surname differently) this was a great platform on which to build Operation Easter.  It was a court result that sent out shockwaves amongst the egg thieves we had begun to target seriously and in an organised way (and who much preferred to be referred to as ‘egg collectors’). I am sure that it was the catalyst that made the first of our targets give up egg thieving.

And not surprisingly I never heard of the Bumbling Brothers again.

See The Thin Green Line and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on alanstewart164@btinternet.com

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