Many years ago, taking a few eggs of relatively common birds was almost seen as a rite of passage in the UK. Almost everybody did it. Conservationists from Chris Packham to Bill Oddie all acknowledge collecting eggs when they were (much) younger, but times have changed significantly. Many species have declined and we now understand that they can’t take the additional pressure of losing nest after nest to schoolchildren. As importantly the passing of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 made it illegal to take or collect eggs.
It’s perhaps hard to believe, then, that there are still people (make that ‘there are still men’ – the RSPB has stated that they’ve never caught a female egg thief) who steal and trade birds’ eggs. But while the number of egg thieves has dwindled away to almost nothing, the idiots who continue to raid nests have become extremely ‘professional’, obsessive to the point of compulsion, and can have a disproportionate impact by specifically targetting rare breeding birds – in some instances virtually removing an entire generation of rare or recently-established species by stealing their eggs.
As recently as May 2018 over 5,000 wild bird eggs were seized from a property in Norfolk belonging to a Daniel Lingham. The eggs were from 298 different species, including rare and declining birds such as Nightingales, Nightjars, and Turtle Doves. The RSPB’s Mark Thomas described Lingham at the time as a “one-man crime wave in terms of rare birds in Norfolk” whose actions had an “incredible impact on birds both regionally and nationally”.
Right now the bird nesting season is underway again. Fortunately, many police forces view egg theft as the serious crime that it is, and take part in what is called ‘Operation Easter’ (see what they did there?). Developed in Scotland 24 years ago, the operation is facilitated by the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) in conjunction with UK police forces and partner agencies. The operation targets egg thieves by sharing intelligence across the UK to support enforcement action.
Chief Inspector Kevin Kelly (head of the NWCU) said in a recent statement: “Operation Easter is a yearly event that is engrained within wildlife crime policing. This year we have given the operation some much needed emphasis, focusing our efforts on to assisting Police Wildlife Crime Officers on the front line.
“The NWCU collates and disseminates the information that identifies the hotspot areas where the crimes are likely to be committed and we work with police officers and partners to ensure these areas of interest are given the attention they deserve, to protect the future of our wild birds. We have a number of skilled and dedicated Police Wildlife Crime Officers across the UK who have adopted this operation and will work with us to reduce criminality, and for this, I thank them greatly.”
Helping stop egg thieves is something that we can all do though. Personal safety has to take priority of course, but most of us recognise suspicious behaviour when we see it even if we’ve often been reluctant to approach someone we see behaving ‘oddly’ in the field (especially in an area known to have rare breeding birds). But we can take steps. We can record what we see on a phone – it may be useful evidence (even the colour of a holdall may tie a criminal to other crimes). If it’s safe to do so, we can speak out – a licenced surveyor or warden/ranger will normally welcome the opportunity to clarify what they’re doing and be grateful that we’ve made the effort to protect wild birds. An egg thief will typically beat a hasty retreat – perhaps back to a car with a registration plate we can record.
If we have any information at all we can contact RSPB Investigations on 01767 680551 (England, Wales, NI) or 0131 3174100 (Scotland), or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you do witness a suspected wildlife crime taking place call 999 immediately and ask for the police. We can also report past offences or provide information by emailing email@example.com or calling 101 – please ask to speak to a wildlife crime officer if possible.
Information can also be passed anonymously and in confidence to the charity Crimestoppers via 0800 555111.