Hatch a plot to catch an egg thief

COUNTRY MATTERS
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The Independent Online
On 23 March in Ludlow Magistrates' Court, an out-of-work engineer, Geoffrey Griffiths, and his sister-in-law, Jane Griffiths, pleaded guilty to five offences under the Wildlife & Countryside Act. They had been caught stealing goshawk eggs from a nest in Blackhill Woodnear Clun, in Shropshire, inspring 1994. The case made a brief news item; but behind it lay a saga of dedicated effort by officers of the Forestry Commission, directed by Ian Hickman, Manager for the Marches District.

Goshawks are fully protected by the 1981 Act, and nobody may photograph or even observe their nests without special licence. But with chicks worth up to £1,000 apiece on the black market, they are prime targets for that strange brand of people who are driven by a compulsion to rob rare birds of prey.

Mr Hickman and his men knew that two nests in the wood had been robbed in 1993. Last spring, therefore, they kept a particular look-out, and when the spike-marks of climbing irons were found in the trunk of a larch tree at the end of March, they decided to mount a watch.

At that moment the female goshawk had not started to lay: the phantom climber had come on a reconnaissance. But from 6 April a dozen watchers took turns to man a hide throughout the hours of daylight. Concealed in a dense spruce plantation 100 yards from the nest-tree, armed with binoculars and a mobile telephone, they put in solitary eight-hour shifts.

Since the site was 1,100 feet above sea level, and snow lay on the ground, it was cold work. The watchers' view was limited to the foot of the larch trunk: they could not see the nest itself, 40 feet up the tree, and their only diversion was the occasional whistle of the cock bird, which every now and then brought its mate food.

Vigilance was rewarded on the evening of 10 April, when a man appeared at dusk and climbed the tree. He soon came down again, not apparently carrying anything - but at the critical moment the mobile phone refused to work, and all the watcher could do was follow the stranger discreetly down the track to the main road.

There, providentially, a local farmer accosted him for having parked on private land - and as the discussion proceeded, the Forestry Commission man was able to walk casually past, taking the number of the blue Fiat Uno and getting a good look at the faces of the intruder and his female companion.

Because the Commission had no trained climber at hand, a Keeper from the New Forest, Andy Page, was called up to ascend the tree and check the nest. Finding two old-looking eggs, and one fresh, he concluded the hen was still laying.

Watch was resumed - and sure enough, at 6pm on Sunday 18 April, with the same watcher in the hide, the same man returned to climb the tree. This time he came down carefully nursing a little green bag.

A call on the mobile telephone alerted Mr Hickman at home, 20 miles away. But when he tried to warn the police, his own telephone would not work and he had to drive 10 minutes to his nearest neighbour to put in a call. Again fate conspired to help the forces of law and order. By the time they reached the scene, Griffiths was already driving away along a narrow lane; but just as a ranger in a Commission van met him head-on, a farmer in a pick-up chanced to come up behind him, cutting off his retreat.

The four eggs found in his car were placed in an incubator. Two chicks hatched and were infiltrated into other goshawk nests. At least one grew to maturity.

The process of bringing the miscreants to court proved frustrating. Griffiths, who had a record of similar offences, failed to show on the first four occasions on which he was due to appear. When asked why he had stolen the eggs, he first said he was a collector, and intended to blow them. Then he changed his story, claiming that in a pub he had heard some low types discussing a raid on the nest, and that he had intervened to save the eggs from a worse fate.

In the end he forfeited the climbing irons, belt-harness, binoculars, axe, maps, compass and rucksack found on him when he was caught, but not the Fiat, which he had sold in the meantime for £1,600. Under the 1981 Act he and his accomplice could have been fined £20,000: £5,000 for each egg stolen. As it was, the income of both parties was so low that Mrs Griffiths was given a two-year conditional discharge, and sentence on him was adjourned pending reports.

Now the Clun goshawks are nesting again; but Mr Hickman and his volunteers are fired up by their success, and any intruder they come across is likely to get a hot reception.

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