UK Politics

Proposed change to law on possession of wild bird eggs

An avocet Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption A High Court judgement in 2012 on the possession of wild bird eggs has thrown the law into flux

The UK and Welsh governments are backing a change to the law on the possession of wild bird eggs.

They say anyone able to prove their eggs were taken from the wild before 1981 should not be prosecuted.

The law was changed in 2004 to require proof that eggs were taken before 1954 but this was ruled unlawful because of a lack of consultation.

Ministers say reinstating the so-called "pre-1981 defence" against liability would be a proportionate step.

Officials said "clarifying" the law in England and Wales would have the effect of focusing resources on prosecuting those currently collecting and trading eggs rather than punishing people who have built up or inherited historical collections.

The move, it is hoped, will encourage those with collections of scientific value to hand them over to museums for research.

While the practice of collecting wild bird eggs is in decline, the two governments' joint consultation found that illegal activity was still going on and there was a need for legislation outlawing it - which first came into force in 1981 - to remain on the statute book.

'Burden of proof'

The majority of those who responded to a consultation carried out by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs called for the so-called pre-1981 defence - which takes its name from the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act - to be reinstated.

When the Act was passed, it was specified that no-one would be prosecuted who could establish that their eggs were taken from the wild before the legislation came into force.

Image copyright RSPB
Image caption Defra accepted in 2011 that the current regulations were introduced unlawfully

However, this was superseded in 2004 when the law was changed to make eggs taken after the passage of the 1954 Protection of Birds Act the "burden of proof" for criminal liability.

Critics of the move argue this has had the effect of retrospectively criminalising anyone who collected bird eggs legally between 1954 and 1981.

The regulations were approved by Parliament in 2004 via a statutory instrument, without a full debate, and were designed to bring the UK into line with an EU directive on the definition of wild birds.

But they were later deemed unlawful because the public had not been properly consulted on the issue of removing the pre-1981 exemption.

In a high-profile case, John Dodsworth's 2009 conviction for the illegal possession of nearly 1,000 wild bird eggs was quashed by the High Court in 2012 on the grounds that the 1981 pre-defence had been "effectively removed without consultation".

Lawyers for Mr Dodsworth, who had previous convictions for wildlife offences, argued he could not have known he was breaking the law by being in possession of a collection of eggs assembled by others over decades and given to him before 2004.

They also warned the law as it stood had major implications for museums and other holders of potentially valuable collections.

'On the wane'

Defra has now concluded there would be no significant benefit to wildlife conservation in maintaining the existing regulations.

By reverting to the 1981 pre-defence, the department says it would ensure the UK complied with EU laws while making it more likely valuable collections were preserved and not disposed of in a hasty fashion.

"Reinstating the pre-1981 defence is a proportionate response to, what is now, a declining activity," it said.

In reaching its decision, the UK and Welsh governments noted that there was no forensic method to authenticate the age of eggs to determine the legality of individual collections.

The RSPB said egg collecting had been "on the wane" since tougher penalties, including the risk of jail sentences, were introduced in 2001 but still posed a serious threat.

The charity, one of 16 organisations - including police forces and museums - and 18 individuals to respond to the consultation, said the 1981 law had been full of "loopholes" in that it was illegal to possess unlawfully killed or taken birds but not illegally taken eggs.

The animal welfare charity said it would have preferred the 2004 regulations to stay in place as part of the "legislative armoury" against offenders.

"We are going to go back to where we were," said Guy Shorrock, the organisation's senior investigations officer. "I suspect that there will be some egg collectors who will be pretty happy with this because they think it will make their life a bit easier."

But Mr Shorrock said it was not a "huge issue" and was unlikely to have a big impact on the amount of prosecutions brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS says it weighs up all the evidence, not just dates of possession, before deciding whether to launch proceedings.

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