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"Discovering that falcon nests have failed is devastating for those fighting against thieves in Scotland."
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“Discovering that falcon nests have failed is devastating for those fighting against thieves in Scotland.”


George Smith has been monitoring the peregrine falcons in southern Scotland since 1984. Although his main occupation is in maintenance, he spends every evening and weekend from March to July observing the birds. He has extensive knowledge of their nesting locations, which are typically on cliffs and abandoned quarries. His car is stocked with various equipment, including imitation eggs, ropes, microchip scanners, and DNA testing kits. He jokingly admits that he is unable to resist his passion for the falcons and his wife has even suggested putting a tracking device on him.

Cupped hands holding four large reddish decoy eggs

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As the peregrine coordinator for the Scottish Raptor Study Group, he shares with me a spreadsheet containing information on 120 nest sites. This group is responsible for monitoring over 90% of all peregrine falcons in the area, from Edinburgh to the border of England.

Starting around 2016, something strange began to appear in Smith’s records. Ten nests were mysteriously failing: despite healthy birds building them, the eggs or chicks would vanish.

Throughout time, Smith has developed a personal understanding of the birds, recognizing their distinct characteristics and unique coloring. He is able to identify each individual bird and their behaviors, and is familiar with which chicks belong to which parent. “I consider them my peregrines,” he states. “I am able to recognize the appearance and actions of each one. It is disheartening to discover that their nests have not been successful.”

In the beginning of 2021, an investigation was launched by Police Scotland regarding a man who was allegedly boasting to his friends about the profits he was making from capturing and selling wild peregrine falcon chicks.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) reports that prestigious racing falcons can be sold for as much as £250,000 in the Middle East. The United Kingdom is the top exporter of live raptors, and the United Arab Emirates is the leading importer.

In April 2021, law enforcement officials approached Smith and inquired about any indications of potential theft of baby birds in his records. They asked if he had noticed any unusual activity. Over the subsequent two years, his data played a crucial role in a major investigation called Operation Tantallon, which has since exposed organized crime across the nation. The first case has been resolved in court, and authorities report that there are additional cases in progress. Through conducting house searches, seizing live chicks, and conducting thorough forensic testing, law enforcement is working to uncover an illegal international trade worth millions of pounds.

Birds sit on planks across the middle aisle of seats on an airplane

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The abandoned nest

The nest is perched 20 metres above the ground, on a sloped quarry cliff face in southern Scotland. It is now empty, other than some bones, feathers and a few old tags from unlucky racer pigeons. “This is where it all started,” says Smith.

In 2021, a female falcon had resided in this location but was unsuccessful in her breeding attempts for two years. In April of that year, one month after receiving the initial report, Smith and PC Gavin Ross ascended the cliff.

Two of the falcon’s eggs were missing after it had been sitting on four. As the men were leaving, they noticed a fresh footprint in the rocky ground, but it was not the same path they had taken. Mobile phone records revealed that the eggs had been stolen only 20 minutes before they arrived. A week later, the nest was found to be completely empty as the remaining two eggs had also been taken.

According to the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it is permissible to exchange captive-bred peregrine falcons, but it is prohibited to remove them from their natural habitat. These birds are afforded strict protection under the law.

Racers prefer wild birds, as they are believed to be stronger, more aggressive, and faster. Birds from the UK, specifically those from Scotland, are highly valued in the Middle East.

The number of export permits for UK peregrines increased by 4,500% between 2007 and 2022, according to Police Scotland. It is uncertain how many of these birds were obtained illegally.

Hands holding small bones near the ground with rocks in the background

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The police raid

In May of 2021, following a trip to the quarry, authorities and the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals searched the residence of a part-time gamekeeper, Timothy Hall, age 48, and his son Lewis, age 23, in Berwickshire.

The police were alerted to the chirping of baby birds and discovered seven of them inside a residence, all only a few days old. They confiscated fraudulent breeding documents, drones used for nest surveillance, and notes detailing the development of each nest. One notebook even had a section labeled “Perries 2020” with information about various nests, including whether they were being sat on or if they had been located and removed. Evidence from the suspect’s mobile phone placed them at the location of the incident.

The results of the DNA test revealed that four of the chicks originated from the nest in the quarry. None of them were genetically linked to the nine adult birds kept in captivity in the house. As a result, all seven chicks were released back into their natural habitat.

Two high sided plastic containers with two grey and fluffy chicks in each.

Detective constable Steven Irvine spearheaded the inquiry for both Police Scotland and the NWCU. From the paperwork discovered at the residence, Irvine deduced that birds had been illegally transported and traded over a period of time. Utilizing this evidence, he identified individuals who had purchased birds from the Halls and successfully located them.

Irvine utilized DNA techniques to demonstrate that numerous of these birds with historical significance were actually captured from the wild. Approximately 22 peregrine falcons were taken from cliffs in Scotland, and now seven or eight of them are being used for racing in Dubai.

The Halls’ conviction is only a small part of Operation Tantallon, which has resulted in over 3,000 ongoing investigations into the illegal trafficking of peregrine falcons throughout the UK. So far, 36 searches have been conducted as part of this operation. According to chief inspector Kevin Kelly, who leads the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NCWU), this is the largest wildlife crime investigation ever carried out in the UK. He also stated that by the end of this year, it will be evident that this is a widespread and serious crime both nationally and internationally. The police estimate that this trade generates £21 million in undisclosed profits for the UK.

Preventing wildlife crime is a challenging task. Though it is considered a high-value crime worldwide, it is not given enough priority by law enforcement agencies, as per the findings of a study conducted by Nottingham Trent University.

Irvine, who is currently working with NWCU, had no prior knowledge in the field of wildlife crime until this case landed on his desk four years ago. He also notes that it was not a topic that was frequently discussed in the industry.

He says that if someone had told him four years ago that he would be doing what he is currently doing, he would have thought they were crazy.

Following the money

Timothy and Lewis Hall admitted to their involvement in the illegal buying and selling of peregrine falcons, a type of bird that is highly protected under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) regulations.

Two men walk with their hands in their pockets.View image in fullscreen

In May 2021, Timothy admitted culpability for multiple offenses related to wildlife and countryside regulations. These included possessing seven wild birds, having an unsecured rifle in his residence, and mistreating nine birds in violation of animal health and welfare laws.

Timothy and Lewis were each assigned 220 and 150 hours of community service, respectively. They were also banned from owning any birds of prey for a duration of five years. Smith expressed his disappointment that they were not given a prison sentence.

During the court proceedings, it was revealed that the Halls had participated in the sale of 15 chicks between 2019 and 2020, earning £41,164. As a result, Lewis Hall is now facing legal action under the proceeds of crime laws.

After being successfully restored in the 1990s, peregrine falcons are no longer considered endangered in the UK, with approximately 1,750 pairs currently breeding. However, human persecution from groups such as gamekeepers, pigeon enthusiasts, and those involved in falconry remains a significant threat to their survival.

Generating a repository of DNA information.

A man wearing a helmet holds a peregrine in one hand and inserts a a long plastic swab into the beak of the peregrine with the otherView image in fullscreen

Dr. Lucy Webster uses her computer to create a map of the United Kingdom with multiple red dots representing locations where falcon DNA has been collected.

Webster, a seasoned wildlife forensic researcher at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture, a division of the Scottish government, has been overseeing DNA analysis on the avian specimens.

The laboratory is creating a chart of familial connections among wild specimens by examining their commonalities.

Establishing this database will increase the difficulty of successfully engaging in the illegal activity of laundering wild birds, as the team can accurately identify the specific parents of a chick found in the wild, providing evidence that it was taken unlawfully. This extensive wild bird DNA database is currently unmatched by any other country and is continuously expanding.

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Webster reports that they have received a significant number of samples. Smith has contributed DNA from 140 wild birds to the collection. According to Webster, they will continue analyzing these samples for as long as it remains beneficial.

The use of the methods to investigate illegal trade has already sparked interest from labs in the US and Europe, as peregrine falcons are found all over the world.

Weakened protections

In the United Kingdom, advocates argue that there has been a decrease in legal restrictions, making it easier for this illicit trade to go unpunished.

According to Tom Grose, an investigations officer at the RSPB, in the past people were required to register a peregrine falcon in a similar manner as they would register a vehicle. However, in 2008, the government relaxed the Wildlife and Countryside Act’s registration regulations. Presently, if someone wishes to sell a peregrine falcon, they must complete a certificate but do not need to physically submit it anywhere. They simply need to fill out a form.

An adult peregrine falcon in flight.View image in fullscreen

Mark Thomas, the head of investigations at the RSPB, reports that eggs and chicks are frequently being taken without permission in various areas of the UK. He also emphasizes that these birds, which are legally protected, will remain in danger unless the existing laws are significantly modified.

Returning to the location where our investigation began, we observe a male bird scouting for prey as it soars above us. Peregrine falcons are capable of reaching speeds of 320km/h (200mph) when diving, earning them the title of the fastest animal on Earth. Smith’s admiration for these birds is due in part to their incredible flying abilities.

The male will maintain the territory while the female travels to the coast to feed on wading birds during the winter. She is expected to return next month to care for their offspring. Smith will return to track their development and hopefully witness the growth of a new family. He will also collect DNA samples from each member, as the fight against falcon poachers in the UK persists.

“They should be present here since they are birds native to Scotland,” he states.

Source: theguardian.com