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Derbyshire man convicted of stealing Peregrine eggs

A man has been jailed after abseiling down a quarry cliff face to steal Peregrine eggs. Christopher Wheeldon was caught on hidden cameras set up by the RSPB as he abseiled down the limestone quarry (belonging to construction company Tarmac Group) in April 2023.

Derbyshire Police were alerted and Wheeldon was identified and arrested. Search warrants were conducted at two addresses which found the clothing seen in the video but sadly the three eggs he stole were not there and were never able to be retrieved.

It’s thought that the eggs were hatched and the chicks sold into the illegal falconry trade.

Wheeldon admitted the theft and pleaded guilty to intentionally disturbing a Schedule One protected bird of prey and taking the eggs. It is illegal under the Wildlife & Countryside Act to intentionally or recklessly disturb any Schedule One bird while nest building but also while they’re at or near a nest containing eggs or young – see our Protectors of the Wild page Nesting Bird, Nests, and the Law).

The 34-year-old appeared at Southern Derbyshire Magistrates’ Court on 15th January where he was jailed for eight weeks for two counts relating to the birds.

Interestingly (and demonstrating society’s priorities), Wheeldon was also given a further ten weeks in prison for a number of shop thefts he committed the same month as he stole the eggs.

 

Peregrine Falcon, Shutterstock

 

RSPB Investigations

The RSPB has been alert to the dangers to Derbyshire’s Peregrines for many years. During lockdown in 2020 three Peregrine nests were robbed in the Peak District National Park and in 2021 Mark Thomas, RSPB Head of Investigations UK, said:

Scientific data and crime reports show that raptor persecution is endemic in the Peak District National Park, particularly impacting iconic species like peregrine and goshawk: this is despite both the species and landscape having the fullest legal protection in the UK. More has to be done as it is clear the initiatives in place are failing.”

At least in this case Wheeldon was caught and convicted.

Thanking the police and Tarmac for their cooperation in the case, RSPB investigations officer Thomas Grose said:

Peregrine Falcons represent the epitome of being wild and free and it is this very characteristic that makes them such a target for criminals involved in the illegal falconry trade, earning money from the laundering and trading of these birds overseas. The theft of Peregrine eggs and chicks has been a persistent threat to these birds in Derbyshire. This case is a great example of organisations working together to bring those responsible to justice. Without dedicated volunteers and the efforts of Derbyshire Police this would have been just another failed nest. I hope this sends the message that we are watching and will continue our efforts to protect these amazing birds of prey.”

 

 

Wheeldon was convicted on video evidence captured by RSPB cameras. While cases have been lost because of a barrister’s arguments around the legal technicalities of covert surveillance, in this case Tarmac had given permission for the cameras to be installed – and it appeared that (unlike the gamekeepers employed by wealthy shooting estates who normally walk free) Wheeldon wasn’t represented by a law firm well-versed in getting wildlife criminals off.

While any conviction is of course welcome, it is still a minor sentence – and as noted above Wheeldon received a longer sentence for the shoplifting offences (ten weeks) than he did for disturbing the Peregrine nest (eight weeks) and stealing the eggs (another eight weeks but running concurrently). Hardly a deterrent to stop an offence that is supposed to be a national police wildlife crime priority that could result in six months in prison. Especially when the thieves – even at this end of the supply chain – stand to make so much money.

 

Peregrines in the UK

The Peregrine has had mixed fortunes here in the UK. War-time control by the Air Ministry because they hunted carrier-pigeons virtually eradicated the Peregrine as a breeding bird in southern England. Recovering populations then followed the ‘DDT declines’ in North America (the pesticide thinned egg shells meaning eggs broke in the nest), and by 1963-64 80 per cent of British peregrines had been lost. Even before then egg collectors had robbed so many nests that in some districts of southern England, Wales and northern England, a high proportion of pairs lost both first and repeat clutches every year.

Populations have recovered somewhat now. Remarkably for a bird once considered to be almost the epitome of ‘wilderness’ and largely confined to upland sites and sea cliffs, Peregrine populations have especially increased in urban centres. As many as 30 pairs of Peregrines now breed in London (the second-highest urban peregrine falcon population in the world after New York).  In fact, urban Peregrines are now more successful than open country ones. That’s partly down to the availability of prey (almost every town or city has breeding Feral Pigeons which Pergerines will hunt all day long), but also to a factor identified by Derek Ratcliffe back in the 1970s: illegal persecution on shooting estates, especially grouse moors.

One of the world’s fastest flying birds Peregrines clock up enormous speeds when ‘stooping’ or diving, breaking the necks of prey like pigeons with the force of impact as they strike them. Wild falcons are highly prized among the Middle East’s falconers, who believe they are generally heavier and more powerful than captive-bred birds, and theft is an ongoing problem for a species that is also persecuted on grouse shooting estates.

Following the removal of a Government registration scheme which was intended to differentiate between wild and captive-bred birds, it is now virtually impossible to trace where these Peregrines will have ended up.

But tethered to a block and being used to hunt the endangered Houbara Bustard is one distinct (and distressing) possibility…

 

Mark Thomas in 2008 with a collection of over 7000 eggs seized from a prolific egg collector. Image RSPB.

Recognising illegal egg collecting

Egg collecting is not the widespread ‘hobby’ that it used to be in the mid-twentieth century but it is still a problem, and disproportionately affects scarce or rare birds whose eggs are targeted because they are more ‘valuable”.

Some threatened birds of prey start to breed as early as March and we can help protect them by being aware of egg collecting and knowing what to look out for.

While egg collectors are almost invariably male, it is their behaviour that gives them away.

  • While they are most active when birds are nesting, egg collectors will repeatedly scope out an area checking for when territories start to be occupied or when male birds start singing again. Not everyone doing this is an egg collector of course (they could simply be a keen birder), but if we know that rare or scarce birds nest in an area, look out for individuals carrying binoculars etc that we don’t recognise and keep an eye on them.
  • If we see anyone acting suspiciously – looking around to check if they’re being watched, searching in bushes or on the ground perhaps, or wading out to islands used by nesting birds (especially in the spring and summer during unsociable hours) – they could be collecting eggs.
  • Don’t approach anyone committing any wildlife crime unless it is clearly safe to do so. Egg collectors are not typically violent but the eggs of birds like Peregrines and other fast falcons may be being stolen to order by a gang or syndicate for export to overseas falconry markets and they may be violent.
  • It is legal to photograph a car or registration plate if we think that the vehicle may be used in a crime. The police and investigators may well have a record of a vehicle that has been used by an egg collector in the past, so that information alone can be very important.
  • If we are suspicious that we’re seeing egg collecting ring the police on 101.

For more information please see our Protectors of the Wild page Wild Bird Eggs and the Law