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Wild Bird Eggs and the Law

In 1954 the passing of The Protection of Birds Act 1954 made it illegal to ‘take or destroy’ an egg of any wild bird.

Section 1(2)(b) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 strengthened that, making it an offence in England and Wales to possess or have in one’s control the egg of a wild bird or any part of such an egg no matter its age or when it was collected.

  • In 2001 these offences became punishable by jail under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 ( > The CRoW Act)

 

RSPB’s Mark Thomas in 2018 with part of an illegal collection of almost 5000 wild bird eggs stolen by prolific egg thief Daniel Lingham.
Image RSPB.

 

 In 2018 the RSPB estimated there were still around 20 active adult egg thieves in the UK.

That might not sound like very many (especially when as recently as the 1950s many children collected bird eggs), but obsessive egg collectors build up collections of thousands of stolen eggs and focus on rare or very scarce species – often returning to the same nest when a bird has laid a second clutch to take those eggs too.

While it’s easy to think we could recognise an egg thief because they are ‘always’ white, shabby, middle-aged males carrying binoculars and a bag to keep collected eggs in, that’s not really the case.

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

  • Egg thieves scour social media, so if we post locations or even sightings of rare species that may potentially breed the thieves will notice. Never post the location of a nest, and never respond to anyone you don’t know asking for more details.

 

  • While most active when birds are nesting, egg thieves will repeatedly ‘scope out’ an area checking when territories start to be occupied or when male birds start displaying or singing again. Not everyone doing this is an egg thief of course (they could simply be a keen birder), but if we know that rare or scarce birds nest or have previously nested in an area, keep a look out for individuals carrying binoculars etc that we don’t recognise – especially if they are making repeat visits to the same site – 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 when few people are around) – they could be steak=ling eggs.

 

  • If we are asked about whether a rare species is nesting or has started nesting yet, we should be immediately be on our guard. Egg thieves typically carry much the same equipment as birders (optics, a field guide, a rucksack etc) but as ‘egg collecting’ has become more widely reported most birders will NEVER discuss nest locations.

 

  • Egg thieves are not typically violent but don’t approach anyone committing any wildlife crime unless it is clearly safe to do so. The eggs of birds like Peregrines may be being stolen to order by a gang or syndicate for export to overseas falconry markets and they may be aggressive if approached.

 

  • It is legal to photograph a car or registration plate when 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 thief in the past, so that information alone can be very important.

 

  • Stealing the eggs of wild birds is a crime. If we are suspicious that we’re seeing egg thieving taking place ring the police on 999. If we have historic information call them on 101.

 

  • We can also contact RSPB Wildlife Enquiries on 01767 693690. To contact RSPB Investigations directly use the online reporting form or email crime@rspb.org.uk. They will always try to help but have no enforcement powers and will refer the matter to the police for investigation if they think a prosecution is warranted.
     
     

    By recognising, recording, and reporting we could help stop an egg thief before they take away eggs, killing the birds that should have hatched from them.

Operation Easter is a nationwide effort to tackle the theft of birds eggs. It was developed in Scotland around the turn of the century, and is now facilitated by the National Wildlife Crime Unit in conjunction with UK police forces and partner agencies.

The operation targets egg thieves by sharing intelligence across the UK to support enforcement action, and is promoted across national media every April. Forces used the slogan ‘No more empty nests this Easter’ in 2023.

In recent years the operation has also been expanded to cover some emerging trends of criminal behaviour such as the online trade in eggs and the disturbance of nests for photography.

If a nest is damaged or abandoned but contains eggs even if there is no chance that the eggs will hatch we still can’t ‘collect’ and keep them.

The eggs may be required as evidence in a police case of course, but even if not it is still illegal to have them in our possession. In fact, it has been illegal to take the eggs of most wild birds since the Protection of Birds Act 1954.

That may seem like overkill, but the law was designed to protect eggs from egg thieves.

The law was tightened again via the 1981 Wildlife And Countryside Act to stop egg thieves selling stolen eggs by claiming they were ‘old’ or collected by someone else

It is an offence to possess the eggs of wild birds which have been taken in contravention of either the Protection of Birds Act 1954 or the current Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

It is also an offence for a person to do any of the following:

  • sell, offer or expose for sale, or has in their possession or transports for the purpose of sale, an egg of a wild bird or any part of such an egg;
  • publishes or causes to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that they buy or sell, or intend to buy or sell, an egg of a wild bird or any part of such an egg.

The advice is that the eggs should be destroyed as we could end up in court for having them.

In reality that’s probably unlikely, especially if we have a collection which definitely and provably predates the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

There is defence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act if a ‘person can show that the egg was in any person’s possession or control before 28 September 1982’ or if a person ‘can show that an egg had not been taken, or had either been taken or lawfully sold to himself or another’.

In 2016 a government consultation looked at this so-called ‘pre-1981 defence‘ to make sure it wasn’t encouraging egg collectors and concluded that it did not.

But do remember that when it comes to court cases involving wild bird eggs we need to show – or prove – that the eggs are being held legally.

  • In other words, the burden of proof still lies with us and not the prosecuting authorities who merely have to prove that we are in possession of bird eggs.
 

For most individuals proving that they have eggs of wild birds in their possession legally may simply not be possible.

The Wildlife & Countryside Act does not cover so-called ‘gamebirds’ including pheasants and Red-legged Partridge as these are not considered ‘wild birds’ for all of their lives.

The law (which in parts is heavily biased around hunting and shooting interests) suggests that birds purchased and reared on land will ‘be the property of the breeder or landowner’. Once they are released into the wild to be shot, they become wild birds and remain the property of the landowner only while they remain on the landowner’s land.

Presumably any eggs laid by birds that survive the ‘shooting season’ and laid the following spring in the countryside become the eggs of wild birds and subject to the same laws? We will update this information when we find out!

Since the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) came into force nature conservation has become a devolved function.

As a result, the Wildlife and Countryside Act has been amended and supplemented by provision in a number of other pieces of legislation, including:

  • the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (in England and Wales);
  •  the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 (in Scotland) and Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011;
  • In Northern Ireland, the main legislation is contained in the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 (as amended), the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, and The Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.

 

The WCA is still legally binding though.

Wildlife crime is defined as any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild flora and fauna, including species traded in the UK.

Note that wildlife crime does NOT include:

  • Incidents involving domestic or companion animals such as dogs (other than dogs being used to hunt mammals), cats, rabbits, domesticated birds, etc.
  • Wild animals that have been involved (killed or injured etc) in road traffic accidents.

Road accidents with wild animals do not need to be reported to the police, but note that domestic animals (as well as goats, horses, cattle, asses, mules, sheep and pigs) come within the remit of the Road Traffic Act.
If you have a road accident involving these animals you are required by law to report it to the police. If the wild animal is so badly injured in a road accident that there is no chance of recovery or the animal can not be returned to the wild then he or she may be euthanised, providing there is no appropriate long-term captive or semi-captive accommodation or when treatment would involve undue suffering or distress.

If we come across a wildlife crime scene or a dead bird/object that may be related to a wildlife crime every piece of information is – or might be – important, but it needs to be recorded properly and accurately for the authorities to have a chance of prosecuting an offender.

  • Before we do anything else it is very important that we do NOT approach anyone we suspect of committing a crime – they may be violent and/or aggressive. This is especially true of badger baiters and hare coursers who are typically extremely violent. This must be a first priority!
 
What do we need to record?
  • What we can see happening – what sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved, could we or the public be in danger?
  • The exact location. Most smartphones have map apps or download the free What3Words app. If in open countryside look for obvious landmarks or fence lines, a tall or isolated tree, a wind turbine, any streams or brooks etc. Think about what would you need to re find a remote location.
  • It is important to record if at all possible whether we are on or near public land as this will determine the type of police response.
  • Never put ourselves in danger, but can we see who is involved and what they look like (e.g. number of people, their gender(s), age(s), the clothing worn, tools being carried)? Can we hear them – if so what are they saying, are they using any names etc?
  • If any dogs are involved how many are there, what colour are they, do we know what breed they are (even information like ‘terriers’ or ‘lurcher-types’ can be very useful).
  • The make, colour and registration number of any vehicle (we can take photos of a car if we think it is being used or might be used to commit a crime). Does it have any obvious dents, branding or markings, spotlights, bullbars etc.

 

DO and DO NOT

  • Do NOT disturb the scene by walking around unnecessarily – small pieces of evidence (cigarette ends, footprints, the marks left by a spade etc) may be lost or trampled into the mud or grass.
  • If photographing an object do try to use eg a coin or a notebook/field guide for scale – providing it won’t disturb the crime scene.
  • If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. DO NOT mark a site with eg a white plastic bag though. Being able to see a marker from a distance might sound like a good idea, but it will also alert an offender that someone has been at the site: they may go back and remove the evidence.
  • Do NOT move any items at the scene – the exception being if they are likely to disappear before the police arrive when we can collect them as evidence.
  • Do NOT touch any dead birds or animals with bare hands. They may be poisoned baits or victims of poisoning. Many poisons (eg Carbofuran) are extremely dangerous in even very small amounts and can be absorbed through the skin.
  • Do NOT do anything illegal ourselves – that might mean our evidence is not admissible.
 If we see a wildlife crime taking place (or someone is at risk of getting injured or is being threatened) call 999 immediately.
They will want to know what we can see happening:
  • What sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved
  • Could we or the public be in danger
  • Do we have photos or video footage which may be used as evidence
  • Tell whoever you REPORT the crime to exactly what you have RECORDED as described in the section above.
 
To report a historic crime – that is, a crime that is no longer taking place – use 101 or a local organisation instead.
  • If calling the police ask to speak to a Wildlife Crime Officer and make sure to get an Incident Report number.
  • Please always follow any advice given and – if they are not available – insist that a Wildlife Crime Officer is made aware of your report.
  •  Our options are wider if the event is over, and it may be preferable to talk first to a charity or NGO to get advice. Crimestoppers (an independent charity) can be contacted in complete confidence on 0800 555 111
  • When thinking about reporting a crime it’s worth noting that only the police have statutory powers to make an arrest. RSPCA and RSPB investigation officers work with the police for successful prosecutions.
 
  • For offences involving wild birds and their nests or eggs we can also contact RSPB Wildlife Enquiries on 01767 693690. To contact RSPB Investigations directly use the online reporting form or email crime@rspb.org.uk. They will always try to help but have no enforcement powers and will refer the matter to the police for investigation if they think a prosecution is warranted.
 
Reporting a wildlife crime (or even a suspected wildlife crime) is important for two reasons.
  • If the event is still happening it may enable the authorities to catch the criminals ‘in the act’ (which means a higher chance of prosecution),
  • and if the event is over a report can still help to build up a more accurate picture of what might be happening in a specific location or across the country as a whole.
Our help is always welcomed
  • Whoever we decide to contact we have been assured that our help is welcomed and that if we’re in any doubt that what we’re seeing is a crime we should report it anyway. Remember, if what we see ‘feels’ wrong, it probably is!
  • Even if we’re not sure about what we’re seeing, we can take a photograph and email it to the police or an investigations officer – they are trained to quickly recognise for example when a snare is illegally placed, whether a trap is being used illegally, or whether a crime is being committed or not.
  • We may help stop or solve future crimes by helping build up a pattern of behaviour in an area.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault, or what we should do if we’re arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in over thirty simple, mobile-friendly pages just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault or harassment, or what we should do if we’re stopped and searched or even arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in forty-one simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 500 FAQs just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource with two aims: to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution; and to provide a ‘quick guide’ to anyone interacting with hunts, hunt supporters, or the police.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to, and the more we know our rights the better we can protect ourselves.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit currently has seven priority offences for wildlife crime.

Badger persecution

It is illegal to interfere with or block a badger’s home or ‘sett’. Badger baiting is a centuries-old now illegal blood sport, where small dogs such as terriers or lurchers seek badgers out of their setts before fighting and killing them.

Bat persecution

Bats and their homes are legally protected, so disturbing or removing them is an offence. If bats roost in your roof, you need to obtain a special ‘bat mitigation licence’ from Natural England to be allowed to disturb them. They are hugely important to our ecosystem.

Trade of endangered species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sets out which endangered animals and plants have protected status. It is illegal to remove any of them from their natural habitat, possess, or sell them. Currently, the top priorities are European eels, birds of prey, ivory, medicinal and health products, reptiles, rhino horns, and timber.

Freshwater pearl mussel offences

These Endangered mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) are only found in rivers in Scotland and small parts of England. They can live for more than 130 years but are extremely sensitive to water pollution and have been illegally farmed for years. It is illegal to damage or destroy their habitat or to take, injure or kill them.

Poaching

Fox, deer, and hare hunting are all illegal under the Hunting Act 2004. Poaching offences also cover illegal fishing – when anglers do not obtain a licence or remove protected fish from lakes and rivers without returning them.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey are often targeted on shooting estates. Their eggs are also traded illegally. It is an offence to target, poison, or kill them, with a particular focus on Golden Sagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles. Disturbing or taking their eggs or chicks is also illegal.

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime

Social media is often used to promote wildlife crime and recruit people to take part in it. Endangered plants and animals are also traded illegally online.

  • Punishment must fit the crime. Conditional discharges and paltry fines are not a disincentive for criminals.

A common complaint is that even if wildlife criminals are brought to court the fines or sentences they get are pathetic and not a disincentive. In most cases judges are giving out the penalties they are allowed to under the law. Changes can be made though. In 2022 the maximum sentence for ‘causing uneccesary suffering’ went from six months to five years. That was the result of targeted public pressure and campaigning. We need to identify where changes should be made and push hard for them.

 

  • Wildlife crime must be notifiable and statistics accurately compiled so that resources can be properly targeted.

Police forces are required by law to inform the Home Office of any notifiable offences, which then uses the reports to compile the crime statistics known as ‘recorded crime’. Currently, wildlife crimes are not ‘notifiable’ though (and wildlife crime involving firearms are also not recorded as firearms offences by the Police).  Without them being notifiable, no one knows how many wildlife crimes are being committed across the UK and where the hotspots are (though ‘grouse moors’ is one obvious response). As we have stated many times on this website, law and legislative enforcement is hugely underfunded and under-resourced. Some of this has undoubtedly been through political choice, but if we at least know which crimes are being committed and where, the resources that are available can be placed where they are needed most.

 

  • There must be changes to make it far easier for all of us to play our part in ‘Recognising, Reporting, Recording’ wildlife cime.

As even a quick glance at the Protectors pages makes clear, laws protecting wildlife are hard to understand. Major pieces of legislation like the Hunting Act 2004  and other laws are riddled with exemptions which strongly favour the hunting, shooting, and agricultural industries. Some date from a century or more ago and don’t reflect the modern world. These need to be updated. While there has undoubtedly been efforts made by successive governmants to use ‘plain english’ to explain legislation, any government wanting to tackle wildlife crime needs to make understanding what is and what isn’t a crime far more easily understood and put resources into a reporting system that the public feel confident using. Crucially, the public need to be sure that if they do report a crime it will be acted upon.

 

  • We have to protect the environment and wildlife properly.

Laws protecting wildlife and the environment need to be revised to reflect the 21st century and the biodiversity and climate crises we are in. Animals (and plants) are not an add-on or a ‘nice to have’ – they have shaped the systems that life depends on, and our laws need to reflect how critically important they are.

 

If you’d like to support just one legislative change, Protect the Wild has launched ‘The Hunting of Mammals Bill: A Proper Ban on Hunting‘ – please sign our petition calling for a proper ban on hunting with dogs.

We would like Protectors of the Wild to be the ‘go to’ free resource, packed with the kind of information that really does help all of us become ‘eyes in the field. But we can’t possibly think of every question that might need answering or every situation someone might find themselves in! And while the information in these pages is largely taken from Government online advice and was compiled in 2023 (and constantlyy updated), perhaps we’ve missed something out.

If you could provide us with legal advice get in touch. Or if you find a mistake or a gap please let us know. That way we can continually improve Protectors of the Wild – for the benefit of animals and all of us. Thanks.

‘Protectors of the Wild’ is a project of Protect the Wild. We have a dedicated email address for anyone wishing to get in touch with a specific Protectors query or with additional information etc. Please use the form on our Contact Protectors page or email protectors@protectthewild.org.uk. Thank you.

Much of the information we give in these pages is very technical or to do with legislation which can be revised without much notice. While we have worked very hard on these pages and we take keeping our information accurate and up-to-date very seriously, Protect the Wild are not legal professionals. Just to make sure no-one thinks we’re offering professional legal advice, we feel obliged to include the following disclaimer on every page.

  • Please think of the ‘Protectors of the Wild’ pages as a ‘first stop’ before seeking legal advice. We provide detailed information but not professional advice. The information provided by Protect the Wild should NOT be considered or relied on as legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Any of the material on our website may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no legal obligation to update such material. While we update and revise as often as we can, Protect the Wild assumes no responsibility for the accuracy and correctness of any information, or for any consequences of relying on it. Please do not act or refrain from acting upon this information without seeking professional legal advice.