A nest raider yesterday became the first person in Britain to be jailed for trapping and selling wild birds caught in this country.
DNA fingerprinting techniques, similar to that used for convicting murderers and rapists, were used to refute Derek Canning's claim that he had bred rare peregrines from captive parents and was breaking no law.
In fact, he had trapped them or taken them from nests in the wild, and yesterday at Newcastle Crown Court he was jailed for 18 months. Judge Michael Cartlidge said: ``In a sense you were stealing from the public what was their own heritage ...
"Your suggested breeding programme was a sham - throughout this case you have taken enormous trouble to disguise your offences."
Canning, 33, a warehouseman, fabricated a succession of cover stories after 14 young peregrines - and no parent birds - were discovered during a police raid on his home at Riding Mill, near Stamfordham, Northumberland.
He claimed the parent birds had been stolen by a rival breeder. Seventeen months later he produced two parents, but the court was told that these were also taken from the wild.
The court was told that he advertised his young peregrines in a bird magazine, claiming they were captive-bred. Mark Styles, for the prosecution, said: ``The defendant asked for cash, camera equipment, newish cars, Rolex watches or jewellery in return for these chicks.''
Police and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds were first alerted to his activities when Canning was stopped driving near a nest site in Kielder Forest with two chicks soon after a nest had been robbed.
The authorities were unable to prosecute him on that occasion and the chicks were returned to him, but their suspicions had been aroused and further inquiries resulted in the raid on his home.
Using DNA evidence, geneticists at Nottingham University were able to show that Canning's claims about how the young peregrines were related to each other and had been captive-bred were untrue.
Canning denied one count of keeping or offering for sale a prohibited bird species and six counts of selling prohibited birds under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species Regulations. The jury found him guilty after a two-week trial.
The court was told that Canning tried to get round Department of the Environment laws by registering his birds as being legitimately born in captivity. In all, Canning illegally had 22 wild birds in captivity during a two-year period.
The RSPB hopes some of the peregrines remain sufficiently wild to be released. Investigations officer Guy Shorrock said: ``He is an obsessive, persistent and very devious man. The preparation for the case was something of a running battle, because he kept coming up with new stories about how these young peregrines had been hatched in captivity.
``He saw these birds only in terms of the money he could make from selling them."
Britain's peregrine population plummeted in the 1950s after the introduction of organo-chlorine pesticides, but it has made a strong recovery and there are now about 1,200 breeding pairs.