To Read It To The End, You Must Disbelieve It

Mark Thomas (left) and Guy Shorrock keep watch on Britain’s egg obsessives. “These are not normal criminals,” Shorrock says. Photographs by Richard Barnes.

Thanks to the New Yorker‘s commitment to a difficult topic–birds and their fate at the hands of regular and irregular people–and especially to Julian Rubinstein and his confidants for this taxing piece of journalism:

On the afternoon of May 31, 2011, Charlie Everitt, an investigator for the National Wildlife Crime Unit in Edinburgh, Scotland, received an urgent call from a colleague in the Northern Constabulary, the regional police department whose jurisdiction includes the islands off the country’s western coast. The officer told Everitt that a nature-reserve warden on the Isle of Rum, twenty miles offshore, had reported seeing a man “dancing about” in a gull colony. Everitt looked at the clock. It was 4 p.m., too late to catch the last ferry, so he drove halfway to Mallaig, a tiny port town four hours away, where he could take the first boat out in the morning.

The Isle of Rum, a forty-one-square-mile rock, is inhabited by about forty people, many of them employed by the Scottish Natural Heritage, an environmental organization charged with protecting wildlife. Rum has red deer and an assortment of rare birds, including merlins and white-tailed sea eagles, and it is a principal breeding ground for the Manx shearwater, a seabird with a distinctly eerie call. For this reason, as Everitt knew, the place was also a target for egg collectors, a secretive network of men obsessed with accumulating and cataloguing the eggs of rare birds.

The ferry ride the next morning was choppy; clouds hung almost to the water. Everitt, a moonfaced man of forty-six, wondered what kind of day lay ahead. In Victorian times, egg collecting in England was the quaint province of natural historians, but, as laws protecting endangered birds were passed, the activity became a criminal act. Collectors had gone underground; some communicated with one another using code numbers as aliases. In his ten years on the job, Everitt had never encountered a collector.

Halfway across the sound, Everitt was contacted by radio. It was the Northern Constabulary: the suspect was on the jetty. As Everitt disembarked, he saw a rangy man dressed in camouflage leaning against a bulging rucksack. He looked to be in his late forties, with sunken brown eyes. Everitt approached and asked his name. “As soon as he said it, I thought, We’ve found our person.”

The man was Matthew Gonshaw, the most notorious egg collector in Britain. An unemployed Londoner, Gonshaw had already served three prison terms on egg-collecting charges. When he was last apprehended, in 2004, investigators had seized nearly six hundred eggs, a hundred and four of them hidden inside a secret compartment in his bed frame.

There is no police station on Rum, so Everitt took Gonshaw to the Scottish Natural Heritage office, where Gonshaw consented to a search of his rucksack. It held several small syringes, which collectors use to forcibly blow out the contents of eggs; topographical maps of the area; a loop of rope; and a military survival guide. Everitt had also noticed shredded newspaper sticking out of some food containers. Inside them were twenty eggs, including eight of the Manx shearwater.

Gonshaw refused to answer questions; he knew the police would raid his apartment and asked that they get the key from the landlord instead of breaking down the door. Everitt called his Edinburgh office, which informed the Metropolitan Police, in London. Within hours, a joint special-forces team from the police and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the U.K.’s largest conservation organization, were preparing to search Gonshaw’s flat. Mark Thomas, a senior investigator for the R.S.P.B. who had become a minor celebrity on the environmental-crime circuit for his work on egg-collecting cases, told me recently that, when he got the call, “I put down the phone and literally ran to my car.”

Read the whole article here.

One thought on “To Read It To The End, You Must Disbelieve It

  1. Pingback: Dear Citizens Of Malta, Please Embrace The Ban | Raxa Collective

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