DNA tests trapped bird breeder who used stolen eggs

Wildlife trade: Dealer jailed after genetic fingerprinting proved falcons were hatched illegally
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The Independent Online

A peregrine falcon breeder who bought stolen wild eggs and hatched them using his licensed birds was yesterday jailed for four months.

Peter Gurr, 54, sold the offspring birds, a protected species once in danger of extinction, to other breeders for up to pounds 550 each, claiming he had legally bred them in captivity. But detectives used DNA testing - genetic fingerprinting - to prove he was using stolen eggs.

Judge David Pitman, passing sentence at Snaresbrook Crown Court in east London, told Gurr he had no choice but to impose a jail term to deter others from what he regarded as a serious crime.

Gurr, of Rainham, Essex, a registered keeper, owned or had access to 11 breeding pairs.

Duncan Munro-Kerr, for the prosecution, said Gurr had been approached by a Scottish grouse moor gamekeeper offering to sell the wild eggs for pounds 150 each. The keeper said that if the eggs had not been bought they would have been destroyed to prevent the grown birds attacking the grouse.

Once the eggs were hatched using legitimate pairs, Gurr was able to claim that he had bred them lawfully in captivity, enabling him to obtain the relavent registration documents and sell them on. But during 1993, he claimed to have bred 31 chicks from 45 eggs, a 75 per cent success rate as opposed to the norm of around 25 per cent, attracting the interest of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and police.

The investigation uncovered a nationwide web of Gurr's trade in birds, which earned him pounds 2,590, and led to the homes of a number of keepers being raided by police who took blood samples from their birds for DNA testing.

Under questioning, Gurr admitted buying nine eggs, though he was only charged with six counts of illegally trading in birds from a protected species to which he pleaded guilty.

The use of DNA testing is a technique more often used to track murderers and rapists. That it should have been employed to unmask an operation illegally to sell peregrine falcons indicates the gravity with which police view the offence.

Gurr came to the attention of police and the RSPB after his apparently spectacular breeding successes in 1993. Within months, investigators pieced together a nationwide trail and on 27 February 1994, police from 10 forces raided a number of homes in Operation Dutch Lady, the biggest of its kind.

Vets took samples from 36 falcons, later to rise to 49 after other of Gurr's customers contacted police to see if their birds were related to his breeding pairs. DNA tests showed that at least 23 of the birds had no blood links and must have originated from wild falcons, protected under the worldwide Cites convention and in Britain under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species Enforcement Regulations 1985.

After the case, Guy Shor-rock, the RSPB officer who assisted police with the prosecution, said he was pleased the judge had recognised the gravity of the offence. "This is the second custodial sentence for these offences."

Earlier this year, Derek Canning, 33, of Riding Mill, Northumberland, was jailed for 18 months after being convicted of selling the birds illegally.

Mr Shorrock said the success of DNA testing was an increasingly effective deterrent. "Before we had to catch them red-handed raiding the nest," he said. "Otherwise once they get the eggs to their own breeding pairs they were home and dry."

The increased risk of detection also appears to be reducing the danger to the species, which had almost become extinct in Britain 30 years ago because of the effects of pesticides but has recovered to 1,284 pairs.