A “brazen” taxidermist has been jailed for 56 weeks after he persistently flouted laws over trading in endangered species.
Aaron Halstead, 29, of Burnley, Lancashire, was first investigated and cautioned in 2011 for regulation breaches when he was a student who operated a taxidermy business to fund his education.
Following the caution, he had the benefit of guidance from a police officer with more than 20 years experience in wildlife crime who explained to him the legislation and what was permitted.
But Halstead went on to ignore the advice and was later jailed for 24 weeks in 2015 after he admitted purchasing sperm whale teeth, a cheetah skull and a dolphin skull, and offered to sell a snowy owl without a permit.
On Monday he received another term of imprisonment for nine similar breaches of the control of trade in endangered species regulations between September 2017 and January 2018.
Halstead was said by the Crown to have used his legitimate business as “a vehicle for his illicit trading”.
He admitted at an earlier hearing to a string of offences including selling and transporting black rhino horns, acquiring tiger skulls for a commercial purpose, offering a sperm whale tooth and black rhino skull for sale and keeping elephant tusks for sale.
Prosecutor Adrian Farrow told Preston Crown Court: “He was intimately familiar with the legislation and had been provided with specific guidance in relation to it.
“Against that background, the circumstances of the offences for which he now falls to be sentenced can be characterised as deliberate and calculated actions driven by the considerable financial gains which can be made in such trade.”
Outlining the case, Mr Farrow said the defendant reassured a supplier in a WhatsApp conversation he did not need to be “afraid of Customs” in shipping 10 tiger skulls worth 9,000 euros from the Netherlands.
Halstead boasted: “It will be fine … I’ve never had anything stopped.
“Only from out of the EU.”
In another WhatsApp chat Halstead arranged a trip to Calais, France, to sell black rhino horns for 70,000 euros to a “Chinese rich” client after he had removed the horns from a head he had lawfully bought at an auction.
The defendant wrote to an intermediary: “What story are we using if customs ask?
“I will put some other taxidermy in the car and make a false invoice… so it looks like I am delivering them to France.”
Mark Stuart, defending, said Halstead, of Glen View Road, had a “lifelong interest” in taxidermy, sparked by his grandfather’s original interest.
He said: “He should have stopped trading but he did not.
“It was a ridiculous stupid decision to make which he now bitterly regrets.”
He said the defendant’s wife, Heather, who was sitting in court, was “utterly astounded” when she discovered he had been illegally trading again and had told him to close down the taxidermy business, which was dissolved in January 2019.
Halstead was a family man and a qualified swimming instructor who had particularly benefited children with disabilities through his skills, the barrister added.
Sentencing, Judge Robert Altham said: “I am told he is sorry but it is difficult to accept that submission put the way it is.
“He knew what he was doing was wrong.
“He simply chose to the take the risks even though he was on the wrong side of a custodial sentence in 2014.
“This was brazen, persistent, well-organised criminality.
“This is no hapless amateur who has offended by stumbling into an area of legislation he was not aware of.
“Here was a person who acted deliberately in a flagrant and knowing breach of the law, understanding the risks he took and the harm he could cause but was prepared to take those risks for considerable financial rewards.”
He noted that a “most painstaking and careful investigation” was required after Halstead initially denied any wrongdoing following his arrest in January 2018.
Andy McWilliam, investigations officer for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, said: “This is the third occasion that I have dealt with Halstead for similar offences in under 10 years. He is an extremely knowledgeable individual, but sadly his main concern is profit.
“He is well aware that some of the species he profits from are threatened with extinction. He is also aware that these species are protected by international law.
“He knows that is feeding a demand and that his illicit trading may have a direct impact on the survival of some of the world’s most threatened species.”