A RARE birds' eggs collecting ring has been smashed in South Devon.
Marcus Betteridge and Seymour Parish Crang were fined thousands of pounds for collecting dozens of rare wild bird eggs.
The pair, who were described in court as 'Premier League' level egg collectors, both pleaded guilty to various wildlife offences.
Betteridge, 53, and Crang, 50, were described in court as 'obsessional' collectors and nest finders with a 'twisted psyche' who pursued their hobby despite it carrying the threat of a jail sentence since 2001.
Betteridge, from Totnes, pleaded guilty to intentionally or recklessly disturbing a Dartford warbler at Little Haldon, near Teignmouth, in 2009 and was fined £1,000 by Newton Abbot magistrates with £265 costs.
Crang, of Wildacres Bittaford, Ivybridge, admitted a charge of illegally possessing 15 wild bird eggs, and received the same punishment.
Police and wildlife groups have welcomed the sentence saying it sent a strong message to bird eggs collectors that wildlife offences are being taken seriously.
Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer at the RSPB headquarters who came down for the hearing, said: "Mr Betteridge was in the premier league of egg collectors in this country for more than 20 years.
"Devon and Cornwall police have a good record of prosecuting wildlife crime and we are happy to support them."
Wildlife officer PC Josh Marshall said the fines were 'a good indication' of how seriously the magistrates were taking such crimes.
He added: "This should send a clear message to persons engaged in such criminal activity that they will be identified and brought to justice."
The charges were brought after a joint raid on both men's homes in 2010 revealed the collection of bird eggs, belonging to Crang, an unemployed bricklayer.
There were five eggs of a lesser redpoll, four of a tree pipit, five linnet eggs and one of a redshank, all kept in a cotton wool-lined icecream carton.
A diary belonging to Betteridge, running to hundreds of pages with detailed notes covering more than a decade of activity, was also found. Mark Haddow, prosecuting, said Betteridge, a builder and odd job man, had once been an associate of Britain's most notorious egg collector, Colin Watson, who died in 2006 after falling from a tree, collecting eggs.
He told the court: "Watson was the number one most wanted man by the RSPB – Betteridge and him collected for a long time."
Mr Haddow said a statute of limitations meant only two years of activity could be prosecuted.
Betteridge, who has three previous convictions including attempting to steal golden eagles eggs in Scotland, admitted only one offence, on April 25 last year, that of disturbing the warbler.
Crang was said to have had one previous conviction – a £3,000 fine after being caught with 1,212 eggs, some from 'schedule 1' birds
Nigel Butt, mitigating for the two men, objected to the characterisation of the two men as 'criminals and fundamentalists'.
He said: "They are in no way evil or wicked – they are people passionate about their subject and have had to adjust their behaviour."