Picture a nest with a complete clutch of eggs. A human hand reaches in and swipes the lot. The eggs are blown to clear the contents: ‘like an abortion’, a collector explains. Many endangered bird species make just one nesting attempt per season; a loss like this can mean extinction nationwide.
Poached is an American documentary filmed in the UK. A portrait of the very particular British passion for egg collecting, it begins with an animated comedy caper. In the title sequence a man in a raptor mask runs the gauntlet of an angry cinema mob. The sinister character has boasted of plundering thousands of wild bird eggs, and the audience is incensed. Director Timothy Wheeler quickly seduces us with cinematography showing the country’s landscape and birdlife at its most spectacular. A dramatic film score by Mark Orton sweeps you along, but social realism and tragi-comic character studies soon exude an unsettling aftertaste.
Stating its aim as a serious look at criminal egg collecting, the idea for Poached was hatched from a lengthy article published in the New Yorker in 2013. Julian Rubinstein had followed ‘Operation Easter’, a campaign established in 1997 by UK police and the RSPB against Britain’s most notorious illegal egg collectors. Remarkable in its scale (similar to that of drug or human trafficking investigations), Operation Easter implemented the 1954 Protection of Birds Act. This outlaws the taking of most wild bird eggs in the UK. In 1981, ninety bird species were declared Schedule 1. Possession of eggs from the birds on this list, unless taken before 1954, is a crime.
With Osprey Cam on BBC Springwatch and the notion of high-security nests as a major tourist attraction, it’s surprising to see that egg collectors are a modern phenomenon. Bill Oddie has often admitted to egg collecting as a young boy. Pre-1954 was another era, he says; it was the norm, as harmless as stamp collecting. But the Victorian mentality of amassing complete collections representing an entire species persists today with birds. ‘The attraction of eggs is the range and variation of pattern and colouration in each bird species’, RSPB staff suggest. They are now seeing a trend in repeat offenders translocating to other countries in order to continue their obsessive pursuit.
Guy Sharrock, Head of Investigations at the RSPB, appears in the film. He says egg collecting cases make up about 25% of the unit’s work. The National Wildlife Crime Unit (established in 2006) also keeps a constant lookout in the breeding season. I sneaked out of a Norfolk hotel one foggy May morning to the edge of Titchwell RSPB reserve. Marsh harriers and cuckoos were conspicuous in their courtship fly-pasts but it wasn’t just the birds that had binoculars trained on them. I too was being watched. Local bird groups warn members not to give away the locations of possible nest sites. As well as featuring conservation and crime teams, Poached shows the taskforce of amateur ornithologists and animal lovers who volunteer to protect the nests of species most at risk.
The documentary makers’ greatest coup is situating themselves in the lives of men so incognito, not even a member of a specialist crime unit had encountered them in 10 years of investigation. One of the first to appear in the film reckons the public perception of egg collectors is that the likes of him are not much better than paedophiles.
This documentary is a dramatic contrivance. It is warts-and-all…but it is also psychedelic. A man in a vest with only a canary for company fries a greasy egg while his socks and pants dry. This is Matthew Gonshaw, East-Ender and one of the most notorious lone egg collectors. ‘When I got caught the first time I was even collecting when I had the tag on my ankle’, he proclaims. Gonshaw is filmed assuming the Lotus position. While he meditates an avian psychedelic trip seems to occur, with eggs bouncing in slow motion and birds crying out and making accusing eyes at the camera. Coming back down to earth Gonshaw, apparently reformed by mindfulness as well as several jail sentences, reminisces about the places he’s been, the things he’s seen. He used to be intrepid and all-conquering and attractive to girls.
Men cut off from the love of their life need something to replace it. ‘Without passion you’ve got nothing in life’, says Mark Lawrence. He appears in Poached as an ex-egger, now professional nest finder with the BTO. The fox in charge of the hen-house is harnessing his skills for the good and is shown helping with ecology surveys using his comprehensive nest locating expertise.
In 2006 the egg collector Colin Watson was killed in action when he fell out of the tree he was climbing to raid a nest. The star of the central human story in Poached seems set up for a fall from the start. Ben Tarvie, ‘formerly known as John Kinsley’ is shown marauding through the countryside with a criminal sidekick in tow. He’s shown scaling trees, dislodging nesting birds and supposedly robbing eggs on camera. But Ben says he’s a reformed character and wants to make an honest living out of photographing wild birds. Understandably, it’s tricky for him to obtain the licences required to do so. Tarvie claims not to have stolen eggs since 1989. Trouble is, some of his mates are still active thieves so he gets tarred with the same brush. The film shows how this man’s love for the rarity and variation of nature’s most perfect object is almost impossible to give up. A somewhat guileless but endearing character, he agrees to take possession of an illegal horde on offer from the house clearance of a deceased egg collector. He can’t bear to think of the eggs being routinely destroyed, thinks they should go to a museum. The RSPB does not want collectors to have the satisfaction that collections will survive as a legacy, although they are aware that persistent offenders will want to start collecting again when eggs are seized. The stress and moral dilemma of living in possession of the eggs makes Ben Tarvie ill.
Tarvie faces his demons, even meeting his nemesis Guy Shorrock of the RSPB after a screening about wildlife crime at Rutland Bird Fair. And he’s shown teaching his six-year-old son the facts about the human toll on wildlife conservation. Steered by Daddy and film crew around a Scottish castle where dozens of wall-to-wall animal trophies stare at each other, the boy weeps.
For film director Timothy Wheeler the oddball real-life subjects are his trophies. Active egg thief ‘Mr X’ is styled in a camouflage suit and giant raptor skull mask. His disguised voice is warped to match his warped character. In Ben Tarvie’s case, his new friends the filmmakers toy with him, including outtakes of him hashing his lines in his eagerness to clear his name. After all, the main character’s gotta change. A mixture of exploitation, stylisation and fact, Poached is a fascinating insight into an underground world.