TWO brothers were yesterday convicted of illegally disturbing a protected colony of Britain’s rarest seabird during winkle-picking trips to an island nature sanctuary.
Magistrates ruled that Derwick and Leslie Ramsay recklessly disturbed nesting roseate terms on two separate boat trips to Coquet Island, off Amble, Northumberland, last summer.
The island, which is managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is home to virtually the UK’s entire breeding population of roseate tern, whose numbers have plummeted to just over 70 pairs.
The species is so rare and at-risk that landing on the island is strictly prohibited unless a special licence is granted by English Nature.
This is to avoid the risk of potentially damaging disturbance of the birds by humans.
The Ramsay brothers were prosecuted under the Wildlife and Countryside Act following an RSPB investigation into their winkle-picking expeditions to the island on July 20 and 22 last year.
Leslie Ramsay, 41, of Charles Road,, Amble, admitted intentionally or recklessly disturbing nesting roseate terns on July 22.
Derwick Ramsay, 43, of Ivy Street, Amble, denied committing the same offence on July 20, but was found guilty yesterday following a trial.
The court was told that both of them went onto the island and caused roseate terns to panic and take flight after wandering too close to the birds’ nesting boxes.
Yesterday Bedlington magistrates adjourned sentence – the offence carries a maximum six months in prison and/or a fine of £5,000 per incident – until January 25, so that probation service reports can be prepared.
Last night Mark Thomas, senior investigating officer with the RSPB, said: “Roseate terns are incredibly rare birds, with Coquet Island being their only sanctuary left in the UK.
“The RSPB, working with the Duke of Northumberland and Natural England, are trying to conserve these birds and increase their numbers, and incidents like these are really unhelpful. It shows how fragile these birds are to this type of illegal disturbance.
“We are obviously pleased that this case has been won in court and, regardless of the eventual sentence, it reinforces the message that people cannot land on Coquet Island. It is a sanctuary in the truest sense.
“We await the roseate terns returning to Coquet Island in 2013, when we can assess the numbers and whether these incidents have had any impact on this globally-threatened species.”
The Ramsay brothers were cleared of a charge, which they denied, of possessing boats capable of being used to commit the offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Coquet Island is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area. No unlicensed landing is permitted and signs make it clear that it is an offence to disturb the nesting terns.
The Ramsays claimed they had gone to pick winkles to help their children earn some pocket money to buy tickets for a Jessie J concert at Alnwick Castle.
Both said they had no intention of disturbing any protected birds.