Now environmentalists and wildlife crime officers fear the illegal trapping of wild British finches and buntings for the European bird-keeping trade has become a bigger problem than they thought. Operations by wildlife officers and police in Scotland over the past year have fuelled concerns among conservationists that what was once believed a minority crime is increasing sharply. Several cases are to go before the courts in the next few weeks.
In a recent raid, officers from Lothian and Borders force seized 22 wild finches believed to have been illegally trapped in the Borders area and destined for sale on the black market. The birds, including bullfinches, chaffinches, yellowhammers, siskins and bramblings, are highly prized for their colourful plumage and can be worth from pounds 10 to pounds 100 each to unscrupulous collectors. Experts believe many are for countries such as Belgium and Malta, where the popularity of bird-keeping means demand cannot be met by birds bred legally in captivity.
Although the breeding and possession of finches is not against the law provided the birds are legally held, the trapping, possession and sale of wild finches is a crime. There is now increasing concern at how organised the practice has become, because it had been thought a relatively minor crime.
A spokesman for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said: "We always thought it was one old guy here or a young bloke there who were taking these birds for their own collections, but it appears there is actually a thriving market for birds caught here and taken south or abroad.It's a UK-wide thing. It is bigger than we have dealt with before. It has certainly surprised us.
"Considering it is possible to catch these birds easily, if you know what you are doing, it is money for nothing. It also doesn't carry the same stigma other `substances' do. Appearing in court charged with dealing in a dodgy finch is not going to have the same drawback to being caught dealing in drugs."
Gangs use several methods to trap the birds, such as the use of lime sticks, which involves smearing glue on twigs and bird tables, and using seeds and caged birds as lures. When the birds land, they are stuck. Nets and spring-loaded traps are also used commonly by the gangs, which are estimated to be snatching 2,000 birds a year between September and April.
Finches bred in captivity from lawfully held parent birds can be sold legally only if they are fitted with government- approved closed-rings which means that in some cases criminals are putting counterfeit rings on captured birds in an attempt to disguise their origins.
Among the most highly prized are infertile "mules", which are the offspring of wild birds interbred with domestic canaries. They have unique colouring and features.
THE TARGET SPECIES
BULLFINCH: An unmissably striking bird, with its combination (in the male) of black cap, grey back, white rump and bright red breast and its chubby, bull-necked appearance. Even the female is a very pretty mix of black, white and grey.
CHAFFINCH: One of Britain's commonest as well as most colourful birds, fifth most frequently spotted in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch last year. The male is a particularly attractive combination of a pale blue cap, a rusty-red breast, and white wing bars.
YELLOWHAMMER: The best-known and most colourful of our buntings. The sound of its song (often sung from a fence-post) is described as a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese. Once common in the countryside, numbers have plummeted because of intensive farming.Reuse content