Poached by Timothy Wheeler



British birders are renowned ornithological enthusiasts – the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) boasts more than a million members, a tremendous level of support for a conservation organization. According to Timothy Wheeler’s new documentary, some Brits are also obsessive collectors, stealing sometimes thousands of eggs from the nests of wild birds in pursuit of their odd hobby. Whether this type of activity poses significant survival threats to bird populations, Poached doesn’t quite make clear, a shortcoming that could limit appeal beyond core birding types and ardent conservation supporters.

Removing eggs from bird nests is a crime in the UK and probing the murky underworld of illegal egg collectors, the film turns up several men convicted of the offense who are willing to discuss their shady pasts. Matthew Gonshaw is an unrepentant collector who’s been convicted and jailed several times for stealing birds’ eggs, even earning the dubious distinction of a lifetime ban on entering Scotland during bird-breeding season. Displaying an anti-social streak wider than an eagle’s wingspan, Gonshaw remorselessly brags about pilfering thousands of bird eggs, compulsively persisting even after his initial arrest.

John Kinsely, another middle-aged former convict, tries to appear contrite about his former crimes as he shifts his interests to wild bird photography, but a fascination with egg collecting continually surfaces in his sometimes bizarre interview segments. Strangest of all is someone calling himself “Mr. X,” a man dressed in camouflage and wearing an outsized bird-of-prey mask who claims to be an active egg thief, stealing more than 100 a year for his stash of more than 3,000 specimens.

Arrayed against these self-styled outlaws is a diverse law enforcement community, including an investigative branch of the RSPB and a wildlife crimes unit specifically devoted to pursuing poachers. How this criminal activity has become such a major issue in the UK is a question the film leaves unanswered, since the perps claim to be in it mostly for personal satisfaction, rather than financial gain. “I’m doing it for the buzz really,” says Mr. X at one point.

The thieves who agree to be interviewed ironically claim to be bird lovers, but on the whole appear to be poorly socialized, single men without particularly viable social skills. Whatever the roots of their obsession, they don’t appear to give much consideration to the impacts that their acquisitive impulses have on bird populations after eggs are removed from the wild, particularly for rare species like golden eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons. For their part, the filmmakers don’t give the topic much consideration either, concentrating their inquiries primarily on the poachers, rather than their prey.

Wheeler, an American documentary filmmaker, achieves surprisingly intimate access to these mild-mannered criminals, but spends an inordinate amount of time indulging their paranoid persecution tendencies and elaborate revenge schemes. One almost wonders whether their on-camera rants will end up as evidence in future prosecutions. Excellent wild bird and aerial drone landscape photography help lighten the tone a bit when the interview segments too often bog down in repetitive psychological profiling.

Production company: Doc Life Films
Director: Timothy Wheeler
Producer: Steve Brown
Director of photography: Timothy Wheeler
Editor: Eric Myerson
Music: Mark Orton
No rating, 91 minutes