RSPB: INVESTIGATIONS: COLLECTING WITHOUT CONSCIENCE

On 9 April 2013 at Inverness Sheriff court, Keith Liddell of Holm Dell Drive, Inverness, was sentenced to a 220 hours community service order.  During an earlier trial in March there was a dramatic change in direction and he decided to plead guilty to 13 charges relating to the illegal trading in birds’ eggs and possession of 338 eggs.

The background to this case and events elsewhere give a fascinating insight into how the desire to collect can override obvious questions about the origins of the items sought.

The desire to collect appears to be deep seated in our nature.  In an evolutionary perspective, there was clearly great value for our ancestors to gather and keep items that were needed or which might become in short supply at some later stage. We see this across nature with a whole range of animals storing food to get them through difficult periods.

At some stage in human history this must have progressed to the trading of items for mutual benefit and this now forms the basis for our society.  This desire to collect continues to expresses itself in modern society in an incredibly diverse manner.  From antiques, books, stamps, cars, toys, autographs the list seems endless.  So it is not surprising that wildlife features in this list, from a twitcher’s list to taxidermy, and from shells to skulls.

The problem with trading is that it inevitably creates a demand for products.  The global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES) has sought to try to control worldwide trade in more vulnerable animals, plants and their derivatives.

However, at times this seems completely ineffectual when you look at the impact of demand on some of the rarest creatures on the planet.  The desire for rare parrots, ivory, tiger and rhino derivatives demonstrate the extremely serious conservation impacts that trade can have for some species.  In extreme cases it can even push them to extinction.  As the rarity increases this can fuel the prices, creating yet further incentive to take from the wild.

Whilst not in the same league as some of these major global concerns, it appears that birds’ eggs also hold an unhealthy fascination for some.  For over 20 years, nearly all my work with egg collectors has revolved around people taking eggs from the wild and where these represent a trophy of their exploits in the field.

Eggs do pass between collectors, usually when an individual has died or decides he no longer wishes to keep them.  Some individuals are content to collect eggs taken by others and indeed from around the mid nineteenth century for around a hundred years a number people and auction houses made a living from the selling of birds’ eggs.  In Britain this effectively came to an end with the Protection of Birds Act 1954 which made the selling of birds’ eggs unlawful.

For all the social benefits of the internet, it is clear it has opened a massive door of opportunity for people to deal and trade in illegal items.  The policing of this cyber world seems an almost impossible task.  Along with a myriad of items on offer, birds’ eggs occasionally occur on internet auction sites, though these are typically poor quality collections and I suspect many sellers are unaware of the offences they are committing.

And so to the strange underworld of Mr Liddell and his associates.  Amongst these more discerning collectors of birds’ eggs, illegal trading took place in a much furtive and organised way.  In 2009, I was asked by Durham Constabulary to look at a collection of over 2000 eggs they had just seized.  Initially it seemed fairly shambolic and badly set out, but as I started to delve things became very interesting.  Amongst things which caught my eye were a clutch of greenshank eggs taken from Scotland in 1993 by the notorious egg collector Colin Watson.  There were eggs from the United States and Australia.  A set of egg datacards in ‘familiar’ handwriting, which I had little doubt would be fraudulent, and later confirmed by forensic handwriting tests.  My curiosity was aroused!

I then saw email correspondence from the suspect and trawling through some 6000 emails it was soon apparent that the exchange of eggs was taking place with two individuals in Scotland, and that there was a network of people involved including individuals in the US, Australia, South Africa and Scandinavia.  A pile of used parcels showed eggs had had been posted from the US with contents falsely declared as Christmas ornaments or socks!  The individual from County Durham was later prosecuted and pleaded guilty to keeping, trading and smuggling birds’ eggs.  He received a suspended jail sentence.

And so north to Scotland.  In June 2009 the police raided two address, one the home of prison officer Keith Liddell in Inverness.  Behind a bookcase in the loft, over 2000 birds’ eggs were recovered.  Myself and colleagues set about the time consuming process of cataloguing these and examining photographs, datacards and yet more emails.  The complexity of these cases creates a whole range of investigative problems for the police.  They simply don’t have the experiences and resources. Without the hundreds of hours of work by RSPB staff, cases such as these would often never reach a court.

Even then, there are still problems.  From the home of an associate of Liddell in Scotland a large collection of eggs was seized, though unfortunately this did not proceed to court.   Encouragingly, the formation of the Wildlife and Environment Unit in 2011 within COPFS and the appointment of dedicated staff to deal with wildlife crime was instrumental in the success of the case against Liddell.  The RSPB would like to see a similar unit in the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with wildlife crime in England and Wales.

With Liddell’s eggs there was data with some of the eggs which suggested they had been taken from as far back as the end of the nineteenth century to as recently as 2007.  His emails indicated he was swapping eggs with several other individuals and that he had even paid hundreds of pounds to acquire eggs from some of his associates.  He was clearly well connected with many people in the egg collecting world.

Quite what was going on in his strange little world is difficult to know.  Whilst many of the eggs he acquired were old, having been taken many years ago, it was clear some of the people he was dealing were still actively collecting.  His quest to build an extensive collection containing a diverse array of species appeared to have completely consumed him.  Exciting species were actively sought – Egyptian, black and griffon vultures, ospreys, peregrines, black-throated divers, cranes and many more.  It appeared no thought was given to the origin of these eggs, and he was well and truly lost in a world without conscience.

Interestingly, it appeared some of the people involved in the egg trading world were quite happy to lie about the identity and provenance of the eggs to increase their trading value. Species were deliberately mis-identified as something ‘more interesting’, or stated to be wild taken when they had been laid in captivity.  Clearly no honour amongst egg traders!

Following events in the UK, the results of enquiries abroad have been mixed.  In the US there appears to have been a failure by the authorities to act against two egg traders, and no news at all from Australia.  Closer to home in Scandinavia the news is much better.  Over 16,000 eggs have been seized and it is believed four individuals are facing court proceedings.

Hopefully, recent proceedings will have made others involved in egg trading sit up and take note.  The authorities have shown they can investigate and prosecute such difficult cases and the courts will take them seriously.  That at least should be on their conscience.

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