Forbidden passions, death and birds' eggs

A South Yorkshireman died last week scaling a tree to reach his life's passion – a nest. What drives people to risk their lives and their reputation to collect birds' eggs? Roger Ratcliffe reports.

Collecting birds' eggs is the hobby that dare not speak its name. Anyone found guilty becomes a pariah. Even hardened criminals are known to make life tough in jail for convicted nest-raiders.

But scratch most respectable birdwatchers or serious ornithologists and underneath you'll find a one-time egg collector. Britain's best-known twitcher, Bill Oddie, has actually "come out" by admitting to a magazine: "The honest truth is, if I hadn't been an egg collector I very much doubt I would have become a birdwatcher. It was my egg-collecting experience that taught me all sorts of skills and techniques. I actually learnt an awful lot."

It's a safe bet that Oddie, who gave up robbing nests at the age of ten, doesn't have the skeleton (or rather shell) of a rare osprey's egg in his cupboard. Most schoolboys never moved beyond the common species found in gardens, hedgerows and riverbanks, and the holy grail of collectors – an egg of the spectacular fish-eating osprey that began to breed in Scotland during the 1950s – was for them just a blow-pipe dream.

But Colin Watson, 63, one year younger than Oddie, set out to live that dream. A week ago, however, he paid the price for a lifetime's obsession with birds' nests by plunging to his death from a 40ft tree near Doncaster.

Watson was once Britain's most ruthless egg collector, audaciously using a chainsaw to try to fell a scots pine containing an osprey's nest at Loch Garten – the Fort Knox of Britain's bird reserves. For more than decade he played cat-and-mouse with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which finally won the confiscation of more than 2,000 birds eggs found at his home near Selby in the 1980s and had him fined thousands of pounds.

Today, the RSPB believes nest raiders are more ruthless than ever, and reduced to a hardcore of 300 obsessives who put their lives at risk on remote crags to steal golden eagle nests, or swim in ice-cold fens to reach the nests of rare bitterns and bearded tits.

The identikit collector is white male, aged between late-20s and late-50s, and earning enough money to pay the expense of travelling many thousands of miles a year. They often use rented cars because their own registration numbers are on police computers, and have begun using budget airlines to Spain and Portugal – where security against egg collectors is limited – to bring back the eggs of rare birds.

Mark Thomas, the RSPB's investigations officer, says that sometimes the main source of information is a phone call from a collector's disgruntled girlfriend or partner. "They are fed up of playing second fiddle to boxes of calcium shells, and invite us to come and raid their address."

When the RSPB and police armed with search warrants burst through the door, they find the usual equipment of small hand-drills, blow pipes and syringes needed to empty eggs. The more damning evidence of notebooks meticulously recording where and when each egg was stolen, and OS maps showing marked nest sites, are secreted away in places like wall insulation cavities or behind secret panels on doors. The egg collections are often under floorboards.

One collector in Liverpool, looking out of his window and realising he was about to be raided, got rid of his eggs by flushing them down the toilet. Police forced the door to catch him in the act, but later dismantled the house's plumbing to retrieve fragments of shell and prove they were the eggs of rare birds.

Another collector was caught red-handed near a nest but swallowed the eggs whole before they could be formally identified.

Many collectors have no conscience about their hobby annihilating a species in one area. Last year, Daniel Lingham, a 52-year-old single unemployed carpenter living in a remote part of Norfolk, was found with almost 4,000 eggs in his static caravan.

He had raided so many nests of nightingales and nightjars on East Anglia's bird reserves, collecting more than 100 eggs per species, that wardens thought their breeding failure must be natural and were spending thousands to try to improve habitats. It never occurred to them that someone was coming in to steal multiple sets of eggs each year. Lingham was sent to jail for 10 weeks.

Alone, poor and obsessive, Lingham was one of the modern "lunatic fringe of eggers", according to the RSPB. He contrasts starkly with the Oxbridge-educated men who were once Britain's leading collectors. The doyen was the Rev. Francis CR Jourdain, whose immense knowledge of breeding birds gained whilst egg collecting made him one of Britain's foremost ornithologists. They had their own august body, the British Oological Association (oology is the name they gave to their pursuit), and met regularly to swap stories over fine dinners.

Unlike many of today's collectors they stole entire nests. One of their most prized items was the nest and eggs of Britain's smallest bird, the goldcrest; if it also contained a single cuckoo's egg.

But Jourdain and his friends were eventually viewed with distaste. The most learned bird organisation, the British Ornithologists Union, passed a resolution in 1908 condemning egg collectors, and after the First World War, recording sightings of birds became the fashion that it is today.

However, for several decades, many of Britain's most respectable ornithologists still raided nests – they just didn't flaunt the fact.

Jourdain died in 1940 at the age of 75 and left his immense egg collection – some 17,500 full clutches and thought to be the largest in Western Europe – to Oxfordshire Museum at Standlake, where is now housed in cabinets paid for by Heritage Lottery fund.

In his honour, the British Oological Association was renamed the Jourdain Society, which became a meeting place for egg collectors who were driven underground by the first major piece of legislation outlawing their activities,

the Protection of Birds Act 1954.

By coincidence, in the same year the book that was to encourage a whole new generation of collectors like Yorkshire's Colin Watson and Norfolk's Daniel Lingham was published. The Observer Book of Birds Eggs went on to sell a staggering 1.5 million copies in Britain.

Astonishingly, the Jourdain Society managed to retain its charitable status until a few years ago, when its annual meeting in Salisbury was raided by the police and RSPB in a swoop code-named Operation Avocet.

Tactics like spreading DNA material near the nests of rare birds to prove cases in court, and cut-price airlines watching for bookings to Europe by known egg thieves, are making it harder than ever for collectors.

Colin Watson, it seems, had given up his destructive hobby, but the desire to look into a nest never left him.

Apparently, he fell to his

death while trying to climb

to see nothing more exotic

than the nest of the very common and widespread sparrowhawk.