A Scots prison officer caught in the illegal trade of rare birds eggs– many with the same protected status as elephant ivory – has been ordered to do 220 hours community service.
Keith Liddell, 53, narrowly avoided being jailed by Sheriff Gordon Fleetwood who said his activity encouraged people to raid nests of protected species.
He was found with an astonishing cache of 2,307 when police raided his Highland home on the suburbs of Inverness.
The city sheriff court heard Liddell had carried on a schoolboy interest in ornithology when a relative left him a collection of birds’ eggs. He continued the collection by swapping eggs with other dealers around the globe.
When officers swooped on his home at Holm Dell Drive they discovered a concealed stash within the loft and behind a bookcase, including eggs of rare species such as the peregrine falcon, Egyptian vulture, lesser kestrel, barn owl, black kite, spoonbill, osprey and Slavonian grebe.
They are all protected at high levels under national and European law.
Liddell had changed his plea to guilty five days into his trial last month, admitting 11 charges of trading in the eggs of protected species and two charges of unlawfully possessing eggs of rare birds.
Inverness Sheriff Court heard the case was unusual because Liddell did not collect the eggs from the wild but instead traded with other collectors.
Liddell’s lawyer Pauline Chapman added that the charges did not involve the exchange of money or him being engaged in physically taking eggs from nests.
The case was “simply charges of swapping eggs” with other collectors in the UK and elsewhere.
But Sheriff Fleetwood said: “There would be no point in people raiding nests without people like Liddell.”
The court heard that Liddell had a “schoolboy interest” in ornithology and was subsequently passed a collection of eggs from a relative which he built upon by trading with others.
Mrs Chapman said her client was now facing an internal investigation by the Scottish Prison Service and his employment of 10 years was now in jeopardy.
She added: “He has had to live with the stress of this case since June 2009.”
The sheriff told Liddell: “I must take into account the number and seriousness of the charges, the sheer number of eggs recovered, the length of time over which this course of conduct was persisted in, the fact that you were actively engaged in trading in birds eggs that Parliament had decided should be protected from such activities, the apparent fact that although many of these eggs were collected historically you appear, from the emails produced to be careless as to the provenance of eggs offered to you during the currency of the charges and the fact that given the pains you took to conceal your collection, you were well aware that your activities were criminal.
“Against that I must balance your previous good character, the fact that you have held a responsible job for a considerable period and that that employment may be terminated as a result of this conviction.
“I have come to the conclusion that this is a case where a term of imprisonment could be imposed. I have also, somewhat reluctantly, come to the view that it is not the only disposal open to me and that the alternative to prison, a community payback order requiring you to carry out unpaid work of benefit to the community is the more appropriate sentence.”
RSPB Scotland welcomed the conviction, with head of investigations Ian Thomson stating: “Mr Liddell is very fortunate to have escaped a jail sentence.
“Although he has not been convicted of taking birds eggs from the wild, the trading activity in which Mr Liddell was engaged obviously perpetuates such crimes, posing a significant threat to rare breeding birds not just in Scotland, but further afield.
The case formed part of one of the largest ever egg-trading enquiries in the UK.
An associate of Liddell, Andrew Seed, was convicted for similar offences in County Durham in 2010.
The investigation revealed a network of individuals using the internet and email to arrange swapping and purchasing of the eggs of protected birds, with international connections to Scandinavia, the US and Australia.
Three men are under investigation in Sweden following the seizure of 6,000 eggs, while in Finland, over 10,000 eggs were seized from another individual.
Wildlife Crime Officer for Police Scotland Highland and Islands Division, Constable Aros Mathieson said: “This trading enterprise in wild bird eggs was no amateur affair, with contacts worldwide and eggs posted across international boundaries. Thankfully the intelligence gained through this investigation has led to a number of foreign investigations and prosecutions.
“All eggs taken from the wild can have disproportionate consequences for such fragile breeding populations.
“This case amply demonstrates that Police Scotland is committed to wildlife crime and the preservation of our natural heritage for all. Make no mistake that the persecutors of wildlife shall be rigorously pursued, prosecuted and perhaps imprisoned. “
The Slavonian grebe is suspected to have as few as 25 breeding pairs in Scotland, most found in Inverness-shire.
Other eggs in Liddell’s collection include some of the rarest species in Europe, including the Egyptian vulture, great bustard and little bustard.
According to Birdlife International, the Egyptian vulture – illustrated as a hieroplyph on the pyramids, has around 3,300 to 5,050 breeding pairs in Europe. It is in steep decline and now endangered.
The great bustard has around 30,000 breeding pairs in Europe and is listed as a vulnerable species as it is declining due to loss of habitat.
There are estimated to be around 24,000 little bustards worldwide, but again their population is declining rapidly as a result of destruction of habitat.