ONE of the North East’s best-known auctioneers faces a substantial fine and a possible prison sentence after being charged over the sale of an Edwardian collection of birds’ eggs.
Jim Railton, of Railtons in Alnwick, who was unaware that the
sale of any British wild bird egg is illegal, appeared in court
last week following a joint investigation between Northumbria
Police and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
The case has already become a cause célèbre, with
national media interest and an outcry from some quarters at the
level of police time and taxpayers' money devoted to the
Mr Railton, an auctioneer of more than 30 years, included an
Edwardian oak four-drawer cabinet containing a collection of birds'
eggs at a sale in October 24-25 last year. The estimate was
The RSPB received a tip-off from a member of the public and
passed the details to Northumbria Police who sent two officers to
the Old Narrowgate Salerooms in Alnwick to confiscate the cabinet
during the viewing. They returned the following day to arrest Mr
He was subsequently interviewed in Berwick on three occasions
before he was charged with two counts under the Wildlife and
Countryside Act 1981. Specifically these are offering or exposing
for sale wild birds' eggs and (via the publication of a catalogue)
advertising wild birds' eggs for sale.
Northumbria Police, who worked with experts from the RSPB on the
investigation, also interviewed the vendor Mark Goff, who had
inherited the cabinet and its specimens from his mother. Mr Goff
has not been charged.
The cabinet at the centre of the investigation contained 54
eggs, including those of kestrels, guillemots, herring gulls,
razorbills and common garden species. Testimony to their vintage,
most of the eggs were displayed alongside late 19th or early 20th
century handwritten labels - although the case notes also include
the vendor's recollection that he had added to the display as a
child in the 1960s.
The RSPB declined to comment on the specifics of the ongoing
Railton case, but a spokesman was happy to clarify the laws
regarding the sale of birds' eggs covered under Part I of the
Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The law defines a wild bird as "any bird that is ordinarily
resident in or is a visitor to Great Britain in a wild state". It
does not include poultry, game birds (subject to conditions) and
any bird bred in captivity.
While it is not illegal to own wild birds' eggs, it is unlawful
to enter them into commerce. Unlike the international CITES
legislation covering the sale of endangered species (which permits
the sale of items worked prior to 1947), the law makes no allowance
for the age or type of eggs or when they may have been
Accordingly, while it is legal to sell a golden eagle mounted by
an Edwardian taxidermist, it is illegal to sell the egg of a golden
eagle of any age.
The maximum penalty for selling wild birds' eggs is a fine of
£5000 per offence (under the law the presence of 54 eggs in this
cabinet would count as 54 offences) and/or up to six months
Mr Railton (whose real name is Ian Wynne Prytherch) appeared
briefly at Alnwick Magistrates Court on Wednesday, March 10 dressed
in a blue suit, white shirt and an RSPB tie (he is a lapsed member
of the UK charity). He gave an interview to BBC television cameras
as interest in the case grew beyond the local press and concerns
were raised over the use of police time and taxpayers' money to
pursue it. The case was adjourned until March 31.
Mr Railton is as yet undecided on his plea. "I am culpable for
the offence and I know ignorance is no defence," he told ATG
shortly after his brief court appearance, "but I think it is a
complete and utter waste of police time.
"They have interviewed me, taken my fingerprints, swabbed me for
DNA, had RSPB specialist inspectors visit Berwick to look at the
eggs, etc. It must have cost thousands, and all that needed to be
done was to point out that I shouldn't be selling eggs."
He said he has received remarkable levels of public support -
including offers to aid in legal fees to fight the prosecution -
but is conscious that embarking upon a test case would be a
Four years ago the proprietor of Willingham Auctions in
Cambridgeshire was fined £6000 after offering wild birds' eggs for
sale. Colin Peeke-Vout was handed the fine by Cambridge magistrates
in April 2006 after pleading guilty to three charges of possession
of, advertising and offering for sale 69 eggs from a collection
formed in the 1960s with an estimate of £40-60.
By Roland Arkell