Egg snatchers invade Scotland as law fails to protect rare birds

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Police and wildlife protection agencies in Scotland are braced for an invasion by egg thieves from the South, eager to exploit next month's nesting season and a legal loophole that leaves rare bird species north of the border largely unprotected.

Police and wildlife protection agencies in Scotland are braced for an invasion by egg thieves from the South, eager to exploit next month's nesting season and a legal loophole that leaves rare bird species north of the border largely unprotected.

The Highlands are home to some of Britain's rarest large species, including the white-tailed sea eagle, golden eagle and osprey, as well as smaller rare species such as the black scooter, Slavonian grebe, greenshank and black-throated diver.

Nests of these species, usually in remote and unpopulated districts, have always been a magnet for thieves who invariably come from urban areas in England, where they can - since earlier this month - be jailed for the offence. In Scotland, however, the courts have no powers to imprison those convicted for egg theft, however serious the offence.

Scottish police also have no power to arrest and there is a time bar on prosecutions. Once six months have elapsed, no proceedings can be taken.

Dave Dick, head of investigations for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "It's heartbreaking to see how ineffective the law is - we have seen many offenders back in court time and time again, even people still paying off an old fine when they are fined again."

Even the power to fine offenders can be made meaningless. In spring 1999, golden eagle nests on Uist were robbed, and a man later pleaded guilty to taking eggs and being in possession of golden eagles. He was found to have records detailing the theft of 3,500 rare-bird eggs, most stolen in Scotland. But he was given a three-year conditional discharge as he was bankrupt.

Mr Dick said: "They have changed a lot in the last 10 years. Then the typical thief was an obsessive loner and no physical threat. Many now have serious previous convictions, perhaps for violence or drugs, and are in the 25 to 40 age range. People should not approach them but should call the police."

This week, police and volunteer locals on Mull, where a significant proportion of Scotland's 19 pairs of sea eagles nest, launch Operation Easter. Here and in other places in Scotland, round-the-clock vigils at nest sites are being supplemented this year with closed circuit TV. The resulting video footage can then be used in court cases.

Constable Finlay Christine, police wildlife liaison officer for Mull, said: "Most of these egg thieves are known to the police. Some will come over on the last ferry one night and leave on the morning ferry the next day, so observation is essential. But it is not just when the eggs have been laid that we have to be vigilant. We can get thieves coming over weeks and months earlier, to find out where the birds are siting their nests."

The early nesting season is especially popular with egg thieves. According to Maimie Thompson of the RSPB in Inverness, eggs are most attractive to thieves in the early stages of incubation as they can lose some colour later on.

Convictions for theft of rare-bird eggs have surged in recent years. In January last year at Oban sheriff court, two men from the Manchester area were each fined £750. They pleaded guilty after being found close to an occupied sea eagle nest on Mull in March 1999. Last March, two men were also detained on Mull and charged for disturbance of wild-bird nests.

Scottish government civil servants have just completed a draft of stronger powers for Scotland, to go out for consultation early next month.

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