The Jourdain Society, a registered charity named after the Rev F C R Jourdain - a Victorian clergyman, prominent ornithologist and oologist (student of birds' eggs) - is being used as an information exchange by Britain's 200 hard- core illegal collectors, or 'eggers', says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The Jourdain Society rejected the allegation last week, but the RSPB insisted it was a crucial resource for people who flout the law by stealing from the nests of Britain's rarest species. Chris Mead, senior officer at the British Trust for Ornithology, also claimed the society provided a network for illegal collectors and said it had become the 'pariah of the bird- watching world'. He said: 'They are not interested in birds, they are just obsessed with collecting. It might as well be bus tickets, train numbers or sweet wrappers.'
Last Sunday, Operation Avocet, involving eight police forces in the biggest operation yet of its kind, led to police raiding homes in seven counties in England and Wales and confiscating 11,000 wild birds' eggs - including those of golden eagles, ospreys and peregrines - and seizing documents, maps and photographs.
Named after the bird that is the RSPB's symbol, the operation began after documents were seized by police during a raid on the Jourdain Society's annual dinner at the Red Lion Hotel in Salisbury in July.
To Victorian gentlemen, oology was a genteel and harmless pastime, but by the mid- 1940s the study of birds' eggs had little or nothing new to offer science. In 1954 the Protection of Birds Act outlawed the taking of the eggs of all species, and in 1981 the Wildlife and Countryside Act also made illegal the possession of eggs taken from nests after the legislation came into force.
The Jourdain Society was founded in 1946, having formerly been the British Oological Society. 'There was scientific value in what they did at the turn of the century,' said Andy Jones, head of the RSPB's investigations section, 'but there is no scientific value in collecting now. Mr Jourdain would not want his name associated with the society now.'
This week, James Whitaker, the Jourdain Society secretary, was too ill to comment on the recent raids. His wife said the furore had brought on heart trouble. The society's lawyer also had no comment to make.
However, an officer of the society, while admitting that some members had convictions for taking and possessing eggs, denied that the organisation was a front for illegal collecting. 'Anyone convicted of illegal collecting is expelled from the society,' he said. 'Most of the eggs our members have belonged to their fathers and grandfathers and date to the beginning of this century. We are not egg collectors. We are oologists. We study eggs for scientific reasons.'
The RSPB maintains that eggers still pose a threat to rare birds. Andy Jones claims they are at least partly to blame for the extinction of the red-backed shrike, which last bred in Britain in Norfolk three years ago.
The passion of egg collectors is undoubted. A disparate group, encompassing retired senior Army officers, solicitors and young unemployed, they share a willingness to go to extreme lengths to satisfy their desire for eggs. Some have drowned trying to reach nests on remote islands. Others have been found dead at the foot of cliffs with prize eggs smashed in their pockets.
The largest collection of eggs ever confiscated totalled 26,000. One collector even stole eggs from the British Museum by posing as a student.
Speculation about their motives covers everything from macho 'trophy hunting' to Freudian anal retentiveness. Few eggs appear to be sold or swapped. The majority of collectors apparently gain a very personal, private pleasure. Some say that it is the getting of the egg that is the main attraction. Each egg represents an adventure.
'It's a decidedly peculiar activity,' said Mr Jones. 'It's totally compulsive and very British. We have never known a woman to be involved. Illegal collections are hidden away in drawers. Men must have to get up during the night to look at them.'
But eggers are angry at attempts to portray them as freaks.
'Art collectors go all over the world to find pieces for their collections,' said one egger from Devon with convictions for stealing from nests in Shetland. 'What is so different about us travelling to find beautiful eggs? There are old ladies all over the country being attacked in their homes and the police waste resources persecuting us.'
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