How thieves are earning fortunes by snatching falcon eggs from beauty spots in Britain to sell to wealthy sheikhs who prize them as status symbols
The next Mission Impossible movie, the seventh in the series, will see Tom Cruise — alias agent Ethan Hunt — attempt yet another breath-taking escape from the jaws of death.
Clinging to the side of a runaway train as it hurtles off the track and plunges from a towering cliff, our hero must leap for his life before it smashes on the rocks below.
Searching for a forbidding place to shoot the scene this summer, location scouts found a disused limestone quarry in the Derbyshire Peak District, presumably unaware that a real-life act of daredevilry had recently been filmed there.
This other mission was more plausible, but the shadowy character who carried it off was certainly no hero.
After attaching a rope to the top of the quarry, the person abseiled down its sheer face to a ledge, where a pair of peregrine falcons — one of Britain’s most protected birds — had made their nest.
Female peregrine falcon in Wales. Clinging to the side of a runaway train as it hurtles off the track and plunges from a towering cliff, our hero must leap for his life before it smashes on the rocks below
Then the person snatched the three or four reddish-brown eggs incubating there, placed them in a carton, inched down a drop of about 170 ft and stalked off.
As they carried out this despicable act of wildlife piracy, the unhatched chicks’ parents hovered helplessly overhead, their cries echoing across the cavernous pit.
Though peregrine falcons are the fastest creatures on the planet, swooping on other birds at up to 200 mph and dispatching their prey with powerful blows from their sword-sharp yellow talons, they are no match for a predatory human.
Given the remoteness of the location, the intrepid thief’s work may have gone undiscovered but for a covert camera, set up by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to monitor the nest.
The man they claim to have trapped on film, in the late spring of 2020, is hardly in the Tom Cruise mould. Indeed, John Fenton is a 61-year-old former abattoir worker acting as a carer for his partner, but he vehemently denies he was the thief.
Neighbours in the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge, where he keeps a smallholding behind his cottage and plays darts for the local pub, speak of him in glowing terms. The sort who ‘keeps an eye out for your property when you’re away’.
However, Mr Fenton has been charged with stealing the eggs, disturbing breeding falcons, and possessing items capable of being used to commit these offences, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or an unlimited fine.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The most expensive Gyrfalcon was sold for £338,164 ($466,667) on the last day of the International Falcon Breeders Auction (IFBA) organized by the Saudi Falcon Club in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Chesterfield magistrates recently adjourned his trial, but he is expected to claim a case of mistaken identity, insisting he isn’t the man shown in the RSPB video. Whoever it was that risked life and limb to abseil down that quarry wall, wildlife organisations are deeply concerned.
For in recent months there has been a spate of peregrine falcon egg thefts, not only in Derbyshire but in other rural counties, and they say this cruelly exploitative crime is becoming more prevalent.
Last May, a serving woman police officer was among three people arrested after police and the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raided a house in Berwick-on-Tweed, where they recovered falcon eggs and chicks.
The trio have yet to come to trial, so their guilt remains to be proved.
When investigating other cases such as this, involving the theft and illegal sale of rare birds’ eggs, the police have an eye to any connections to organised crime.
Why, you may wonder, might organised criminals be interested in birds’ eggs? The answer lies in Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where falcon racing is fast replacing horse and camel racing as the sport of sheikhs.
The most prized specimens now change hands for tens of thousands of pounds, and sometimes considerably more.
At an auction near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last month, a pure white gyrfalcon — a cousin of the peregrine — sold for £337,000, shattering the previous world record set in the same saleroom last year.
The bird weighed in at 34.5 oz, so it was effectively valued at £9,768 per ounce . . . more than five times the price of gold. This falcon wasn’t stolen from the wild. It was bred legally, in captivity, by a U.S. company called Pacific Northwest Falcons, whose owner, Danny Ertsgaard, told me this week how he makes millions selling to fabulously rich Saudis.
‘We had one customer buy five of the six we produced, and he sent a jet to pick them up. We worked out it cost $250,000 just to fly that jet,’ he said. ‘It’s amazing what deep pockets in the Arab world can do.
‘What’s special about these birds [his gyrfalcons] is that they’re ultra-white, which is hard to produce. We produce five or six every year.’
The record-breaking bird was bought at the Saudi Falcons Club auction. It was screened live on national TV, but Mr Ertsgaard, who had set its reserve price at £146,000, was there to watch as the bidding grew ever-more dizzy. He declined to name the buyer.
However, in 2016, one of Britain’s foremost breeders, Bryn Close, sold his Doncaster-based falcon farm to the Abu Dhabi royal family for £3.7 million — with the proviso that he continue to rear the birds.
Four years ago, when his falcons won six of the ten races in a Middle Eastern tournament, bringing his billionaire clients more than £1 million in prize money, they rewarded him with a Nissan Patrol V8 4×4 worth about £75,000.
As they carried out this despicable act of wildlife piracy, the unhatched chicks’ parents hovered helplessly overhead, their cries echoing across the cavernous pit. Pictured, Peregrine falcon chicks about to be ringed
When Mr Close travels to Abu Dhabi, a gold Rolls-Royce is sent to bring him to the Emirates Palace hotel, where he is installed in the £16,000-a-night presidential suite.
A far cry from the days when this former shop-fitter was so down on his luck that he was homeless.
The falcons he raises enjoy similar luxuries. One photo shows a consignment being flown to Saudi in the cabin of a jet, each bird with its own seat, because their owners feared it would be ‘stressful’ for them to be cramped into the hold.
Of course, the businesses these reputable breeders operate are totally above-board. The international convention regulating the trade in endangered species bans only the import and export of wild-caught peregrine falcons and their eggs.
Even so, some environmentalists baulk at the practice of breeding and training birds of prey to compete in ‘sporting’ events such as 400-metre sky-sprints, judged to precision by high-tech timing devices used in the Olympics.
While traditional hunting with falcons is a Bedouin skill dating back 2,000 years, critics question how these manufactured races — spectacular as they may be — have anything to do with Arab culture.
Their concern is heightened by evidence suggesting this pastime is fuelling a resurgence of the smuggling of wild peregrine falcon eggs.
As I was told by Guy Shorrock, a senior RSPB investigator who has spent 35 years probing this trade, the illicit trail may end in Riyadh or Dubai, yet it all too often begins 3,000 miles away, in Britain’s eyries. This week, Mr Shorrock gave me an insight into this racket, which not only distresses the adult peregrines but — if it continues unchecked — threatens to deplete our sparse peregrine population.
During the early 1960s, when pesticides such as DDT killed their prey, these graceful birds came close to extinction in Britain. But in recent years, thanks largely to the work of conservationists and watchful voluntary groups, numbers have recovered well.
They even nest atop the Houses of Parliament and Derbyshire cathedrals. Yet they are still classed as rare, with fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs throughout the UK.
Their nests may be inaccessible, usually on ledges, but increasingly thieves know where to find them.
According to Mr Shorrock, the racket is driven by big-time operators who use the legitimate trade in captive-bred eggs to ‘launder’ stolen ones, in the same way other gangs wash their ill-gotten profits.
But they are supplied by people willing to risk a hazardous climb, and relatively light punishment in the unlikely event they’re caught, in return for a few hundred pounds. Kept safe and warm to ensure incubation, the eggs they take are often sold on to middle-men, sometimes based in Germany or elsewhere on the continent.
From there they are either smuggled directly to the Middle East or incubated until they hatch (usually after 31 days) before being supplied for thousands to wealthy Arabs.
In Saudi Arabia, regulations stipulate that only captive-bred falcons can be bought. They are also protected by welfare rules (indeed, a cynic may say they are treated better than some citizens).
However, since the country’s indigenous falcon population has diminished, and natural selection is considered to make wild-born raptors faster and stronger, it isn’t hard to imagine some ambitious falconers flouting the law.
This astonishing picture shows a plane cabin packed with around 80 birds of prey after a Saudi prince booked up the seats on a passenger jet to transport the prized predators
If it was true 30 years ago, when TV sleuth Roger Cook posed as a fake sheikh to expose a smuggling racket operating between Europe and the Middle East, it is surely the case today, when a single falcon can fetch £337,000. Moreover, these birds are not only in demand for their speed. In elite Arab circles, they have become the ultimate status symbol.
In the UAE, peregrine falcon ‘beauty pageants’ are now staged. One shopping mall in Dubai boasts a designer falconry store selling not only tethered birds, but potions to enhance their plumage and boost their power, and an array of fashionable accessories.
But back to the thieves plundering Britain’s nests. According to Mr Shorrock, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must shoulder some blame for their proliferation.
For 40 years ago, when the peregrine population was still fragile, laws were enacted to foster its recovery. Under the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act, anyone keeping a bird of prey had to register it.
Owners kept a car-style logbook identifying their birds with numbered rings, and giving their lineage so they could be matched against their parents to prove they had been legally bred in captivity.The system was strengthened during the 1990s, with the arrival of DNA profiling. This enabled RSPB inspectors to make spot-checks to ensure birds had not been stolen.
They revealed the theft of raptor eggs to be alarmingly rife.
In a landmark case, in 1991, a goshawk thief from Liverpool was convicted after DNA tests proved he lied in claiming to have bred the bird. Two dealers were also jailed for selling wild peregrine eggs by falsifying their provenance.
Encouragingly, this crackdown served as a deterrent and Mr Shorrock says it caused ‘a significant drop’ in thefts.
Much to his anger, however, the 2000s saw key elements of the registration scheme dismantled by the Government, apparently to cut costs and red tape.
Crucially, it did away with the ‘logbooks’, so, Mr Shorrock says, a dealer can sell eggs or live birds without keeping a record of who bought them, or where they go.
In a landmark case, in 1991, a goshawk thief from Liverpool was convicted after DNA tests proved he lied in claiming to have bred the bird. Two dealers were also jailed for selling wild peregrine eggs (pictured) by falsifying their provenance
Defra claimed there was ‘no clear evidence’ the old scheme had protected peregrine eggs from commercial theft. But Mr Shorrock strongly disagrees.
‘This was an obvious loophole for criminals,’ he says, backing his assertion with statistics.
In the late 2000s, about 350 British peregrines per year were declared as captive-bred, a number that had varied little since the early 1990s.
Yet by 2018, that figure had more than doubled, and hundreds of these excess birds were being exported outside the EU, with the Middle East a prime destination.
Convinced, with his inside knowledge of the smuggling racket, that the numbers were being swollen by stolen eggs, Mr Shorrock alerted Defra to ‘a significant laundering problem’.
Its response was less than convincing. Government wildlife inspectors were said, in classic civil servant-speak, to conduct ‘risk-based inspections to ensure compliance’ with the law.
How many had been carried out? How effective had they been? The department didn’t know, says the RSPB investigator, because, extraordinarily, it didn’t trouble to keep records of these inspections.
Small wonder, Mr Shorrock says, that ‘a problem we were on top of appears to be resurfacing’.
He adds: ‘Despite the advances of technology we are less likely to catch people laundering peregrines than we were 20 years ago. If you give criminals an opportunity, as Defra has, they will take it.’
It seems so. Three years ago, the world’s most notorious birds’ egg smuggler, Irish national Jeffrey Lendrum, was arrested at Heathrow airport after disembarking a flight from South Africa.
When he was strip-searched, the man dubbed ‘Pablo Eggs-cobar’, after the Colombian cocaine baron, was found to be concealing 19 eggs from various birds of prey, including peregrines, in a makeshift sling beneath his clothes.
His destination? He was due to fly to the Middle East, where experts believe he would have been paid at least £100,000 for his cache.
Lendrum, 59, was jailed for 37 months. He faces a further four-and-half-year sentence for egg smuggling in Sao Paulo, though the UK courts denied an extradition request from Brazil earlier this year as he has cancer.
His case highlighted the vast sums to be made at the top-end of this despicable trade.
Meanwhile, lower down the chain, small-time British operators are taking their cut. All they need is a head for heights, a length of rope and a Googler’s knowledge of the falcon and its habits.
Whatever the outcome of the case due to be heard in Chesterfield, the Peak District is clearly a prime hunting ground.
Of the nine known breeding sites on the White Peak, a plateau in the centre and south of the national park, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust say three have been raided this year.
Raptor monitoring groups also report thefts elsewhere in the county, and in South Yorkshire.
Such is the trust’s concern that it recently employed a woman whose sole task is to keep the nests under surveillance. Yet as regional manager Dave Savage says, ‘she can’t keep watch 24 hours a day’.
Indeed not. Therefore the peregrine pirates will no doubt continue to plunder one of Britain’s great natural treasures to satisfy the idle pleasure of oil-rich sheikhs.
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