Through running Operation Easter from 1997 until my eventual (third) retirement in 2015 I think I know most of the eggs thieves in the UK. But there is always an odd (in more ways than one) person that emerges from this secretive sect. I could safely say ‘man’ in this context without being sexist since I have never known a woman to be involved in the collection of wild birds’ eggs. There are no doubt some women who are involved in hiding an egg collection on behalf of an egg thief. There have also been a few women over the years that have fallen out with an egg thief and turned him over to the police. Nevertheless it is a male domain.
It was interesting that a new name emerged earlier this year. A retired solicitor from Devon named William Beaton was spotted collecting birds’ eggs at Shapinsay in the Orkney Isles in June. I suppose the many egg thieves who have tried to plunder the eggs of rare birds on Orkney have thought that on these remote isles their criminal deeds are unlikely to be witnessed. This couldn’t be further from the truth, since on most of Scotland’s islands the birds are important to the community, residents are maybe more aware of wildlife than folks on mainland UK and they most certainly are well aware that egg thieves frequently visit.
Mr Beaton, who is 73 and a retired solicitor, had been challenged by the owner of the land on which he was acting suspiciously, had possession of an arctic tern egg and was told by the landowner to replace it in the nest. He was stopped by police when he returned to Kirkwall on mainland Orkney and found to be in possession of two rock dove eggs. Police then searched his car and found a further eight eggs, including three of the great skua. He also had an extending spoon, often used by egg thieves for taking eggs from ledges on cliffs.
I am reading between the lines now, since the next action the police invariably take with egg thieves is to contact the police in the area of his home address and have it searched for an egg collection. It seems this was the case, since officers from Devon and Cornwall Constabulary recovered a collection of 435 eggs in his house. These included eggs of barn owls, little terns, cirl buntings, red throated divers and avocets, all birds specially protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The eggs were contained in two chests of drawers and as is normally the case he also had diaries and books relating to taking eggs.
For his troubles he was fined £4,200 at Kirkwall Sheriff Court and a further £4,700 at Plymouth Magistrate’s Court. He probably avoided a prison sentence because of his age and an early guilty plea.
Thankfully wildlife law is much improved since I took on the role of wildlife crime officer with the then Tayside Police in 1993. At that time most wildlife legislation did not give a power of imprisonment to courts, which in Scotland meant that a suspect could not be detained for further enquiry to be made. Had this still been the case it would have given Mr Beaton the chance to phone home and have any incriminating evidence removed before the inevitable police visit, search warrant in hand. Legislative changes in 2003 and 2004 put paid to this situation, which had been much more in favour of the suspect than in the public interest. It may even have been hastened by a sheriff – again in Kirkwall Sheriff Court – handing out a fine of £90,000 each to two brothers for taking eggs on Orkney. The fine was reduced on appeal to £6,000 and £4,000 respectively but the sheriff had made his point that courts needed a sentencing option of imprisonment.