The 24-carat parrots

A report on the trial of Harry Sissen by Neil Sears. Published in the Daily Mail on 24. March 2000

A report on the trial of Harry Sissen by Neil Sears. Published in the Daily Mail on 24. March 2000

(Website editor: The Daily Mail is a popular British tabloid catering for a mid-market readership. It is regarded as the newspaper of "Middle England", i.e the fairly prosperous, reasonably educated middle class. The article was accompanied by a frequently published monochrome image taken ten years ago of Harry Sissen with two Military Macaws (Ara militaris) on his head and shoulder, but unfortunately incorrectly described in the caption as Lear’s macaws. I hope that this does not exacerbate the already unacceptably high incidence of parrot theft in the U.K with likely perpetrators mistakenly believing macaws with feather lines on their cheeks are extremely valuable.)

The smuggling racket begins in the jungles of Brazil, moves on to Britain via Eastern Europe and involves a commodity more valuable than heroin, a jury heard yesterday.

It involves the trade in rare parrots.

The asking price for a pair of Lear’s macaws can be an astonishing £50,000. But with only 180 of them left in the wild, collectors are happy to pay it.

The insight behind the scenes of the bird trade was provided at Newcastle upon Tyne Crown Court where internationally renowned breeder Harry Sissen denies smuggling and selling endangered parrots. At the start of a trial expected to last three weeks, during which Tory leader William Hague is expected to be called as a prosecution witness, the jury heard how 61-year-old Sissen was arrested in April 1998 after a swoop on his home, Cornhill Farm in East Cowton, North Yorkshire.

Customs officers seized more than 120 birds including three Lear’s macaws and six blue-headed macaws.

The court was told that Sissen had bought the South American birds on trips to eastern Europe and smuggled them illegally into the UK.

He kept them at his farm which he called the Cornhill Conservation Centre, where he lives with wife Patricia and daughter Yvonne Scales.

But he was targeted after an international customs crackdown, codenamed Operation Palate.

During the investigation customs officers also found evidence that Sissen had illegally sold two rare birds, a palm cockatoo and a hyacinth macaw.

Simon Draycott, prosecuting, said ’This case involves the smuggling of rare parrots into this country by the defendant.

These birds, particularly the Lear’s macaws, are extremely rare animals. They are endangered species. Like any rare item these birds have a high value to the private collector, and a market has grown up for these species.

’It is an illegal market and one which involves smuggling the birds into this and other countries. It is a lucrative market. If it were not these animals would not be smuggled.

’It is no understatement to say that pound for pound a rare parrot is worth more to the smuggler than heroin.’

Mr Draycott went on ’The case against Sissen is that his interest in rare species of parrots and in, particular his obsession with owning Lear’s macaws led him into smuggling rare species into this country and dealing in rare birds without the appropriate authority.’

The court heard Sissen had bought the birds on trips to Yugoslavia and the former Czech Republic.

Mr Draycott told the court that Lear’s macaws named after the Royal Geographical Society illustrator and nonsense poet Edward Lear are extremely rare animals. They are endangered, were extremely rare and at the last count there were only 180 left in the wild. Only 20 per cent were actively breeding.

Mr Draycott added: ’Lear’s macaws are only to be found in a small area of north-east Brazil.

’Until 1978 their natural habitat was undiscovered but they began to appear on the illegal market in the 1990s when poachers entered the gorges and palm tree groves where the macaws feed and took them to sell on the black market.

’They are now a critically endangered species and are worth in excess of £50,000 on the black market for a breeding pair.’ Sissen denies that he brought the birds into the UK illegally and that he sold another two illegally.

A former farmer, he became a full-time bird breeder more than 30 years ago and has an international reputation after successfully breeding the threatened Conure macaw in 1975 (Website ed: This could be referring to the Blue-throated Conure - Pyrrhura cruentata, which Harry bred very successfully in the mid-70s).

The reason that Mr Hague is to be called as a prosecution witness is that Mr Sissen visited the MP for Richmond shortly after his farm was raided - and is said to have confessed to smuggling rare birds into the country.

Mr Draycott told the jury: ’Mr Sissen spoke to Mr Hague to complain about the conduct of customs and excise officials. `He admitted he had smuggled three birds from Yugoslavia without the appropriate papers.’

The case continues.

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Quotes

 " 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)