For the few remaining criminals in the UK who raid the nests of rare birds to steal eggs for their collection, the season is beginning. Early nesting birds such as the raven and heron may already have been targeted. As the season progresses the nests of white-tailed eagles, golden eagles, chough, peregrine, hen harrier, osprey, wood warbler, nightjar, avocet, stone curlew, nightingale, honey buzzard, little tern, cliff-nesting seabirds, red and black-throated divers, greenshank and many more rare birds will be sought out.
These criminals take the whole clutch of eggs, and for them, the rarer the bird the better since the eggs will have more value. By value I do not mean that in a financial sense, since eggs are seldom sold. The value is in the prestige of having a particularly rare birds’ clutch of eggs, or a rarity such as a clutch of three golden eagle eggs or a clutch of four osprey eggs, something different from the norm. There has recently been evidence of eggs being traded amongst egg thieves, but eggs are normally only sold when an egg thief gives up collecting or dies, and the eggs are sold by a relative.
Nothing is simple in the investigation of crime committed against wildlife. The egg collection is not always kept at the home address of the criminal, nor may the whole collection be in the one place. I compare the slyness of the egg thief to that of the drug dealer (and I had plenty of experience of those in my policing career, with three and a half years as a detective sergeant in the Drug Squad).
Of course some collections are legally held: those are the collections where the eggs were taken before legislation was in place to make this illegal. The Protection of Birds Act 1954 was the principal legislation banning the taking of birds’ eggs, though at the present time the implementation in 1982 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is the current cut-off date. Any egg taken after that is held to have been taken illegally. Nevertheless it is illegal to sell or trade any wild birds’ eggs, no matter when they were collected.
The investigation of wild bird egg theft, UK-wide, comes under the auspices of Operation Easter, which I manage from the National Wildlife Crime Unit. This operation involves every police force in the UK and regular liaison is made with the RSPB. In the two decades this operation has been running it has been particularly successful, with now only 27 known or suspected egg thieves of interest remaining, from a high of over 130.
So how can the public help the police to deal with this crime? Firstly bird enthusiasts and anyone else accessing the countryside should be aware of anyone clearly searching for nests. Many people search for nests with no malice intended, but egg thieves may be acting suspiciously, or may be beating bushes, undergrowth or heather in order to flush a bird. They may be seen to be hiding item, (possibly eggs in a container) for collection later. In the past egg thieves have removed a gate to use as a ladder, used an inflated tractor tyre tube as a dinghy to reach nests on small islands, or have even used a chain saw to access a woodpecker’s nest in a tree.
A good description of the suspect should be noted, and a photograph may even be possible, albeit at a distance. Car registration numbers should be noted and if possible a six figure map reference of where the person was operating may be able to be obtained (nearly all police wildlife crime officers carry and use GPS these days, and this function is usually available in most police radios). Dialling 999 (in an emergency) or 101 for non-emergency gives you contact with the nearest police station. If it happens to turn out to be a false alarm, better that than allowing a criminal to escape with clutches of eggs.
More egg thieves are caught through the police recovering their collections of eggs than actually in the act of stealing eggs. If you suspect someone has been taking eggs after 1982 and has an illegal collection, relaying this information to the police may tie in with intelligence already on file and may be just the recent intelligence that will allow the police to obtain a search warrant. Remember that egg shells hidden in an attic are a poor substitute for a rare bird in the sky, and bear in mind that anyone recklessly or intentionally disturbing a nesting Schedule 1 bird is committing an offence.