One of Britain's most persistent wildlife criminals goes to court on Thursday to learn his fate. Convicted for a record eighth time last month, he has been warned he faces jail.
But Gregory Peter Wheal is not part of some growing rural crime wave; he is one of a disappearing band of criminal eccentrics unique to Britain: the lone, obsessive collector of birds' eggs. The war against them is being won, and there are probably now fewer than a couple of hundred, says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is a sharp decline from the days when hordes of collectors systematically raided nests of rare birds and even propelled some species, such as the red-backed shrike, to the brink of oblivion.
Wheal is a Coventry roofer and pleaded guilty to possessing 75 eggs, including those of kingfishers, little ringed plovers and tree pipits. Among items seized from his home were an egg-blowing kit and maps with nest sites marked on them. He is one of a coterie of hard-core collectors from the West Midlands city, who are typical of the obsessive men (they are always men) who inhabit the weird world of the egg collector.
It is all a far cry from the days when country parsons would show off their prize eggs to parishioners and wander the lanes for a bit of al fresco nest robbing. In recent years, offenders have been known to travel hundreds of miles to steal one egg (Wheal's previous court appearances range from Norfolk to Shetland, Holyhead to Oban), and others have swum lakes and tunnelled into riverbanks to grab a rarity. There was even a case of a pair visiting osprey nest sites in the summer to rehearse climbing the trees before mounting a raid in the spring. The obsessive and meticulous record-keeping of many collectors has often considerably aided later prosecution.
Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer at the RSPB, said: "Most wildlife crime is financially motivated, but egg collecting is an anorak activity. They come from all walks of life: rich and poor, builders and academics. Even policemen have been found to be egg collectors. They hang around in small groups of two or three usually, but we often hear of feuds. They fall out if one is perceived to be withholding information on nests. There is a competitive element, such as a race to get the rarest birds or the first eggs once a bird has been reintroduced to the country."
Such competitiveness - and the strange impulse to gloat in private over a collection that cannot be traded or publicly displayed - is responsible for some of the extraordinary hoards. A Norfolk man had 3,850 eggs when he was arrested in 2004, and another raid, in 2002, found 18 osprey eggs in a Merseyside home. Had they hatched, they would have boosted the British population by 12 per cent. Some collect varieties of a single species, one man having 236 skylark eggs. But most prized are the eggs of rare birds: golden eagles, ospreys, goldeneyes, hen harriers, corncrakes, little ringed plovers and avocets.
Helping the battle against these offences have been wildlife crimes officers and a crucial change in the law in 2000, allowing offenders to be jailed. In 2000, there were 102 incidents, in 2004, 62, and the 2005 figure is expected to be lower still.
RARE BREEDS SOUGHT BY THIEVES
GOSHAWK Some 300 pairs in UK, most related to birds released by falconers. Normal clutch: 2
AVOCET This wader returned to the UK in the 1940s. Conservation success story. Normal clutch: 3-4
GOLDEN EAGLE About 440 pairs in Scottish Highlands, plus one in the Lake District. Normal clutch: 2
LITTLE TERN Threatened species, but widespread on quiet sand and shingle beaches. Normal clutch: 1-3
OSPREY About 160 breeding pairs in Scotland, some in England. Winters in Africa. Normal clutch: 3
PEREGRINE Often persecuted, now recovering. Widespread on cliffs and quarries. Normal clutch: 2-4Reuse content