UP TO 60,000 illegally-caught wild British songbirds have been exported to Malta by one man in one of the biggest wildlife trade rackets ever uncovered in the UK.
So many greenfinches, chaffinches, bullfinches, goldfinches, bramblings and siskins have been removed from Britain by him that undercover RSPCA officers who targeted his activities fear he may have started to affect the level of their wild populations.
The man, a 26-year-old Maltese who runs a pet and garden centre on the Mediterranean island, is believed to have amassed a fortune by satisfying the huge demand in Malta for British cage birds. He has been able to sell wild-caught British greenfinches, for example, for up to pounds 40 each.
The man has built up a network of people in Britain who will trap wild finches, and has then been exporting the birds illegally by fitting them with counterfeit versions of the rings they must wear to show that they were bred in captivity. It is illegal in Britain to take, sell or export a wild bird, but captive-bred birds may be traded.
Over four years he has made dozens of trips to Britain in the winter, when finches flock together to seek food and are easy to catch in large numbers by netting. The RSPCA believes he may have exported between 50,000 and 60,000 wild birds by air, mixed in with consignments of legal, captive- bred birds in an attempt to evade Customs scrutiny.
But the society believes that many thousands of those captured on his behalf - as many as a quarter - have died from stress in initial captivity or on the journey, and the remainder have been destined to a short life as pets in small cages. "Their lifespan in a small cage in Malta is unlikely to be more than three months, which is why he continually needs more," said an RSPCA source.
The man was tracked and watched as he exported birds through Gatwick airport and was finally arrested in a disused petshop in Kent, where he was found preparing to ring more than 500 wild-caught finches. The rings were inscribed with the initials BBC, as on the official rings provided for captive-bred birds by the British Bird Council, the official body. The smuggler had succeeded in obtaining them by convincing a ring manufacturer that they were needed for the Balluta Bird Club in Malta.
The man is now back in Malta, having jumped bail.
But RSPCA officers say that the file on him is not closed, although they are reluctant to spell out what further action they may take. They are still investigating his associates in Britain. A spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that illegal trapping of songbirds, particularly finches, was still quite common in Britain.
But British cage bird enthusiasts are quick to condemn the illegal trade, said Greg Meenehan, of the magazine Cage and Aviary Birds . "People who keep cage birds are aware that people who trap birds give them a bad name and are very opposed to anything to do with trapping or shooting," he said. "The hobby is seen by some people as cruel so they want to be whiter than white."
There is a strong tradition of keeping cage birds in Malta, but not of breeding them, so British birds, which are very successfully bred in captivity, are highly prized.
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