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Last Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Birdsong lovers fell foul of law
By Chris Summers
BBC News

Two men have been convicted of illegally possessing wild British songbirds and "cruelly terrifying them" after a pub in East London was raided by the RSPCA. The court did not accept their claim that they were innocently pursuing an East End tradition.

Bird in cage
Breeding and showing songbirds is a tradition, said the accused. Picture: RSCPA footage

The tradition of keeping songbirds in the East End of London goes back hundreds of years.

In the Cockney anthem Don't Dilly Dally is a line about "walking behind with me old cock linnet". Linnets were once popular cagebirds because of their melodious song.

Les Rix and Adnan Icel were songbird enthusiasts who frequently visited the Fountain pub, in Bethnal Green, to share their hobby with friends and bird fanciers.

Bird paraphernalia

But when dozens of RSPCA inspectors and officers from the Metropolitan Police's Wildlife Crime Unit raided the pub in February last year they found more than 50 birds in cages.

As part of Operation Kongo, 13 men were arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty and the birds taken away to be examined.

Also seized was a large amount of bird-related paraphernalia, including nets and traps.

Mistnets, like this one in Italy, are used to trap birds
Mist nets - thin wall of net placed in the open, with cords which are activated to trap the birds when they fly into them.
Liming - a glue which does not set placed along a twig and birds get stuck on it. Up to 15 birds can be caught by this
Decoy cage - tame bird placed in one half of a cage and its song attracts wild birds, trapped by door on a spring

But 15 months later the raid has led to only a handful of prosecutions and nobody has been convicted of trapping wild birds or trading in them.

On Friday at Thames Magistrates court Rix, 46, and Icel, 41, were convicted of illegal possession of goldfinches and "cruelly terrorising" them by keeping them in cages.

Rix was fined 500 and ordered to pay 500 costs while sentencing for Icel was adjourned for reports until 15 June.

A third man was cleared of keeping birds in too small a cage.

Speaking to the BBC News website during the trial Icel insisted he was being persecuted by the RSPCA.

"They came to my house two years ago and then again a year ago and now this. They took away 150 birds which I'd bred myself," he said.

Icel and Rix said breeding and showing songbirds was a long-held East End tradition.

"We go to the pub and you train them for the best song. It just gives you the pleasure of hearing the best singing.

"You can't get a wild bird to sing in a pub," said Icel, from Prittlewell, Essex, whose family hails from Turkey.

Rix said the birds were "mules", a crossbreed of canaries and finches and he denied they had been caught in the wild.

'No concept of space'

We go to the pub and you train them for the best song. It just gives you the pleasure of hearing the best singing. You can't get a wild bird to sing in a pub
Adnan Icel

But an expert told Thames Magistrates Court he had no doubts the birds were wild.

Aviculturist Roger Caton said the birds were flying wildly around their cages and showing a "lack of perching sense".

This was common with birds caught in the wild which had no "concept of space".

Vet Neil Forbes told the court: "To see how these birds were reacting - by flying around desperately from front to back of the cage, those birds are scared and are trying to get away.

"They are suffering from being in that situation."

The RSPCA conceded the men at the pub were not involved to make a profit.

But Chief Inspector John Wilkins, of the RSPCA's special operations unit, said: "These people are bird fanciers who are interested in their hobby but the difference is that there are legitimate ways of doing it and non-legitimate ways and they have chosen to turn a blind eye to the origin of these birds, such is their desire to own songbirds."

To see how these birds were reacting - by flying around desperately from front to back of the cage, those birds are scared and are trying to get away
Neil Forbes

He said the men had disregarded the suffering inflicted on the birds.

Out of 100 trapped wild birds only 20 or 30 survived the first two or three weeks of captivity because of the stress, he said.

In the past trapped British birds were exported to Malta where cage birds are popular but airlines will not take live birds now.

The RSPCA says it is not campaigning against keeping cage birds, but wants to highlight the cruelty behind capturing wild birds.

"A huge number of people have cage birds perfectly legally. This sort of prosecution brings the whole bird-keeping fraternity into disrepute so you'll find that the majority who do it legally will frown on those who don't.

"Obviously every bird in captivity originates from birds which were wild originally but the captive-bred stock is legitimate as it goes back many many years, to before acts of parliament banned the catching of wild birds," said Mr Wilkins.

"We started tackling it (the trade in wild birds) seven years ago and in that time we have had 150 prosecutions through the length and breadth of the country."

He pointed out anyone buying a songbird should check its legs to make sure it has had a proper ring fitted. These are fitted shortly after birth to ensure experts can distinguish captive-bred birds from wild ones.

  • Three other people pleaded guilty to other charges in connection with the raid and were fined and ordered to pay costs. Charged were dropped against the others who were arrested.

    The owner of the pub was not charged with any offence.

    See the RSPCA raid the pub

    Italy's fight against illegal bird hunts
    01 Jun 05 |  Crossing Continents

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