The taking and collecting of wild birds’ eggs in the 21st century is an indulgence of fanatics. No long do schoolboys collect eggs of common birds, though in fairness in the days before the fascinating and informative wildlife TV productions that we now enjoy, this hobby ultimately set some youngsters on a career path related to wildlife; maybe even in conservation. There is no stereotypical 21st century egg thief. If they have anything in common they are all male and all determined to build their collection of whole clutches of rare birds’ eggs, no matter what the cost; beyond that the range of factors they may have in common vary. Though most are in their 40s and 50s, some are younger, and tend to be younger relatives or close friends of egg thieves who have been sucked into this strange ‘hobby’, if I may call it that. Beyond this, there is now considerable divergence, with the range of occupations being from unemployed through to professionals, even including in the recent past a dentist, retired magistrate, landowner and company director. Some have been convicted of a range of crimes, while others have a clean record, and outwardly at least, are upstanding citizens.
Wild bird egg theft was a common occurrence up until the 1990s, with relatively few of the criminals being caught and many opportunities to catch them being missed as each police force was acting independently, albeit with assistance from the RSPB investigations team. The policing of this type of crime was neither cohesive nor proactive. This began to change in 1997 when Tayside Police launched Operation Easter. This operation brought together the police forces where either the known or suspected egg thieves resided, or where there were areas targeted for rare eggs. RSPB Investigations teams were closely involved and intelligence was gathered on the main individuals and kept by me at Tayside Police on the crime intelligence system.
Keeping intelligence is only part of the solution. Using that intelligence proactively is the next stage. While I have no intention of going into detail of the operational methods, results began to come in quite quickly, with egg thieves being caught, their collections recovered, and more intelligence gathered on hitherto unknown egg thieves. Within three years all forces in the UK were involved in Operation Easter, with a single point of contact in each force, and even more egg thieves began to find themselves in court.
The operation peaked around 2005, when the number of known and suspected egg thieves began to become less rather than increase. A change of pattern also emerged, with some of the criminals beginning to travel abroad to take eggs as the police in many other countries were less attuned to this odd crime than those in the UK. Countries such as Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Iceland were targeted, causing operation methods to expand and include assistance from HMRC, now the UK Border Force.
In 2013 Operation Easter is back with me again at the National Wildlife Crime Unit and only 22 persons of interest remain, some of them not necessarily being egg thieves but considered likely to disturb nesting Schedule 1 birds without a licence to do so, or of taking eggs or chicks of raptors to launder into falconry as captive-bred. The operation has been hailed as a success and there are several reasons why this is so. Firstly legislation changed (in 2000 in England and Wales and 2003 in Scotland) so that wildlife criminals could be imprisoned. This was good news but is little use without there being a significant chance of the criminal being caught. This is where Operation Easter came in (and continues to do so).
Most egg thieves now receive jail sentences, mainly because of a previous criminal record. Since it is a quantum leap for court to imprison a person on his first offence (unless of course the offence is extremely serious – and this must be compared with other crime, not just that relating to wildlife) the direct alternative is a community payback order. Penalties of course can be tailored by courts to suit circumstances. In May 2012 a man from London who had already been imprisoned four times for taking birds’ eggs was the first to be given an antisocial behaviour order by a court. Matthew Gonshaw had been caught by police officers from Northern Constabulary and the NWCU on the Isle of Rum. He was in possession of eggs of the Manx shearwater, meadow pipit and willow warbler. The police in Scotland contacted the Metropolitan Police Wildlife Crime Unit, who searched Gonshaw’s house and recovered over 700 wild birds’ eggs, including those of the golden eagle. Gonshaw was jailed for 6 months at a London court and given an Antisocial Behaviour Order banning him from entering Scotland, or from entering any RSPB or Wildlife Trust reserve, between 1 February and 31 August for the next 10 years. He then appeared at Inverness Sheriff Court, where he was given another 6 months imprisonment and an ASBO banning him from entering Scotland during the months of February to August for the rest of his life. A good result!