Birds to come back to Sissen

"Birds to come back to Sissen". A report by Greg Meenehan in Cage & Aviary Birds for the week ending 7th December 2002

Rare parrot breeder Harry Sissen has won his battle to have the majority of his collection of endangered birds returned to him by the Customs and Excise department that seized them.

A court ruling has found in his favour in the case of around 100 of the 144 birds taken from him in two raids on his North Yorkshire farm in 1998.

The decision could open the door to a substantial claim for compensation against Customs for the wrongful seizure of the birds.

At least 40 have died in the four and a half years since they were taken, and any claim would also take into account the large number of rare birds that could have been bred in that time.

Among the birds scheduled for return from zoos and bird gardens across Britain are Illiger’s macaws, a kea parrot, Goffin’s cockatoos, hawk-headed parrots, red-vented cockatoos, palm cockatoos, citron-crested cockatoos, Moluccan cockatoos, red-fronted Amazons, caninde macaws, scarlet macaws, Triton cockatoos and Buffon’s macaws.

The family is insisting on the return of the bodies of the birds that have died, to provide evidence and to check identification.

Only the military macaws, hyacinth macaws, long-billed corellas and thick-billed parrots are to be forfeited, along with the birds that formed the subject of his trial - three Lear’s macaws and six blue-headed macaws.

Harry Sissen was jailed for two and a half years at Newcastle Crown Court in April 2000 and ordered to pay £5,000 costs after being found guilty of illegally importing the nine birds, though his sentence was reduced to 18 months on appeal.

However, he always maintained that his collection of rare birds were bred by him and legally acquired, and he produced DNA evidence to back up his claim in this civil hearing.

District Judge Roy Anderson, who presided over the case and handed down the judgement at Richmond Magistrates’ Court that decided the fate of the birds, described the 63-year-old farmer as "a Jekyll and Hyde character".

He said what had started out as a hobby had become an obsession, leading to contact with zoos and specialist breeders around the world.

However, he said his lack of records of his original purchases, made before modern day licensing laws were introduced, meant he had been forced to "scrabble round" to try to prove his birds were acquired legally.

He said: "Mr Sissen is a man who has contributed greatly to the preservation of endangered species, but on the other hand was a person prepared to break the law."

Pledge to fight on

The verdict on the legality of the birds in his possession proved the first success for Harry Sissen after years of courtroom battles.

After his 13-day trial at Newcastle Crown Court in 2000 and at the Court of Appeal in London, he fought confiscation proceedings at Harrogate Magistrates’ Court and condemnation proceedings at Teesside Crown Court.

In the last of these, in November 2001, he was ordered to pay £150,000, the amount by which he was said to have profited from his breeding of rare birds.

However, this figure is likely now to be reduced in light of the recent verdict, which shows that a substantial part of that profit was legally obtained.

Despite his success in the latest case, the first in which he represented himself, he says he is determined to go further and secure the return of those birds he has been told to forfeit.

"Everything I could possibly prove by scientific means to be legal, I have done " said Harry.

"But there’s no way I could prove that birds I bought 30 years ago were legal, any more than any zoo can prove where they got their animals in the ’60s and ’70s.

Counting the cost

Judge Anderson declared that in the light of his decision, no award for costs would be made. Customs had planned to apply for £ 80,000 costs in the case, had it succeeded in getting all the birds confiscated.

Asked about a possible appeal, a spokesman said " We are waiting to see formal written judgment from the judge and will be in discussion with our solicitors and other parties before we make any further decisions.

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 " Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "

( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)