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Guard the Malham peregrines: thieves about

Friday 23 June 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who first reported on the theft of rare bird eggs more than 40 years ago, reveals why the star peregrine falcon chicks at Malham cove need night and day protection from egg and chick thieves

TWO totally contradictory items of news in the past two weeks have at the same time delighted and devastated Britain's bird lovers. One was the successful arrival of two peregrine falcon chicks in a well-guarded nest in Malham Cove, one of the jewels of the Yorkshire Dales.

The second, revealed on Thursday, was that the eggs of an even rarer bird, the roseate tern, have been stolen from a nest in a wildlife sanctuary on the Northumbrian coast. That's an area where Viking marauders stole monastery gold. Today's wild egg thieves are as cunning and uncaring as the invaders of 1,000 years ago - and the spoils of their plunder can literally be worth their weight in gold.

I must confess to my deep shame that I collected birds' eggs as a lad: all children who played in the countryside did. But we have very strict rules: only one egg could be taken from a nest and there were certain very rare species - the nightingale being one of them - which could not be touched under any circumstances.

Pretty - but poor for some
Malham stars – still need minders
Photo: rspbimages.com

Thankfully, times change and such hobbies were soon to be considered barbaric. By the time I was a young reporter in the 1960s, I was reporting with horror on the theft of eggs from the only osprey nest in the British Isles, a bird that had been re-introduced to the Scottish Highlands, where it once thrived, in one of the first pioneering programmes organised by the RSPB.

That was a lesson that shocked the ornithological world to the core. From there on in, and to this very day, RSPB volunteers guard osprey nests around the clock during the nesting season. This, sadly, has forced egg thieves to turn their attentions elsewhere - and the raid on the Northumbrian roseate tern nest proved that they are still active, knowledgable and daring.

There may be readers out there who look upon egg thieves as some sort of hobby-crazed obsessives who risk life and limb to possess a rare egg so that they can covet it secretly at night, gloating over it like King Midas over his piles of gold. Nonsense! These men, like all thieves, are in it for the money - and very big money it is too.

No-one really knows how much a rich collector is prepared to pay for a very rare egg - it obviously has to be a top secret transaction - but it is certainly in the thousands of pounds and possibly in the tens of thousands.

But the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which was set up to liase with all Britain's police forces to fight the international trade in endangered species of birds, mammals and reptiles, estimate it could involve as much as £3 billion!

The unit has had some successes - a known London egg thief was jailed for three months in April after he had been caught disturbing a golden eagle's nest in Scotland. When they raided his house, they found collecting equipment - but not a single egg. Any of those are presumably already in the hands of collectors. One would like to hope that, had rare eggs been discovered, the paltry jail sentence would have been considerably longer.

Here in the Yorkshire Dales, the new hatched peregrine chicks - named by their watchers Clint and Gryke after local rock formations - have become stars overnight, being watched by hundreds of visitors every day from an especially constructed hide.

They are a lucky pair because they are guarded in their cliff-side nest by a joint team from the RSPB and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. And, dear reader, please don't think that this guard is no-longer necessary now that they have safely hatched.

Egg thieves can also steal chicks - and for very sound financial reasons. Peregrine falcons, the fastest bird in the world, are highly prized in the Middle East for the traditional sport of falconry. Seized here, they can be transported abroad supported by expert veterinary care because cost is no object - oil rich sheiks are willing to pay a small fortune for them.

The last time I reported on that trade, some 20 years ago, an English thief could demand £5,000 per peregrine chick. That must have at least quadrupled in two decades and, make no mistake, there could still be men about prepared to risk the sheer cliffs of Malham Cove for such a reward. Keep your eyes peeled, you Malham minders, you have precious charges to watch.

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