Following on from our earlier blog – Crow traps: what you should know part 1 (here)
What is a crow trap and why should we be concerned about them?
There are various types of animal traps in use in the countryside but the two we focus on in this article are the ‘ladder’ and ‘funnel’ crow cage traps. These are large, walk-in traps usually constructed with a wooden frame and wire mesh netting. A decoy bird (often a carrion crow but certain other decoy species are also permitted) is placed inside the trap to attract corvids or other target species. Birds that are attracted to the trap can enter via the roof, either through the horizontal slots of the ‘ladder’ or via a ‘funnel’. Once inside the trap it is virtually impossible for the birds to escape unaided. These trapped birds are usually destined to certain death at the hands of the trap operator who is legally authorised to kill them, subject to certain conditions (discussed in Part 3). In some rare circumstances, raptor workers deploy temporary crow cage traps to capture buzzards for marking projects, such as wing-tagging etc. Obviously these buzzards are released as soon as they’ve been marked; they aren’t killed by the trap operator!
There are many concerns surrounding the use of crow cage traps (some we’ll discuss below) but the over-riding concern is the indiscriminate nature of these traps, which means that species other than the target species can be, and often are, caught by gamekeepers, e.g. buzzards, goshawks, golden eagles etc. It is not illegal to (accidentally) trap these non-target species, but it is an offence for the trap operator not to release them, unharmed, at the earliest opportunity. More on this in Part 3.
Before we get in to the nitty gritty of how to recognise a legal trap from an illegal trap it’s worth mentioning that the RSPB (and other groups such as OneKind) has long campaigned for a more thorough review of the legal framework concerning these general licences for crow traps, particularly in relation to potential breaches of European legislation, including the EC Birds Directive. For anyone interested in the RSPB’s position, this document from 2007 (here) is informative.
Other concerns include the fact that there isn’t any effective monitoring of the impact these traps have on both target and non-target species. Crow traps are in use across Scotland year-round but are especially associated with upland grouse moors. It isn’t known exactly how many crow traps are in operation in Scotland but a conservative estimate would be in the hundreds, but probably nearer the thousands. There is currently no requirement for trap operators to record and/or report the number of target and non-target species caught and killed inside a trap (and even if there was such a requirement, who would believe the submitted figures? No gamekeeper is going to admit to illegally killing a protected species!). So how can the regulatory body (SNH) monitor the impact of crow trap use when they haven’t got a clue just how many traps are in use and how many birds and of what species are being killed each year? The follow-on question is, how can these general licences still be issued when the regulatory body cannot justify, in quantifiable terms, the need for lethal control measures?
Some may argue that there is now a record of the number of traps in use because recent changes to the general licences now require that a sign is attached to each trap with a unique identifying code issued by the local police force. However, this unique code is not assigned to an individual trap or to an individual trap operator, but rather to a landowner (or occupier) such as a sporting estate or a farm. This means that an estate owner can use the same code for multiple traps on his/her land (e.g. they may have just one trap or they may have 50+ traps depending on the size of the estate); the point is that the authorities do not have any means of knowing how many traps are in use on a particular estate because they only issue one code per estate.
From a law enforcement perspective, this use of a single identifying code for multiple traps makes it almost impossible to prosecute an individual for illegal use of the trap. For example, if a golden eagle is found dead inside a trap, and it’s obviously been there for a long time, then an offence has probably been committed (because traps must be checked at least once in every 24 hour period – see Part 3). Investigators may attend the scene but find that the trap is located on a large estate that employs multiple gamekeepers. None of the gamekeepers admit responsibility, so how does the investigator identify the individual responsible? A prosecution cannot commence unless an individual suspect is identified. It’s the same loophole we’ve seen used so many times when poisoned bait has been found on a large estate; nobody admits responsibility for laying the bait and thus the perpetrator(s) escape justice. It is only when the trap is located on a smaller estate where a single gamekeeper is employed that there is any chance of a prosecution.
This leads on to another concern…who is actually monitoring the trap operators? How do we know that someone with a recent criminal conviction (who was given a stronger sentence than an admonishment) is not still operating a crow cage trap? We know that many estates don’t sack their gamekeepers following a wildlife crime conviction, and we know of at least one estate where a previously convicted gamekeeper (guilty of raptor persecution) is now employed as a ‘gardener’!!
The potential for the misuse of crow traps is well known amongst raptor workers. Previous reports on this issue have been produced by the RSPB (e.g. see here). Although this 2004 report is now fairly dated and some of the report’s recommendations have since been implemented, there is still a great deal of concern that crow traps are still being deliberately used to target raptor species, particularly buzzards and goshawks and in some areas, golden eagles.
So what can we do about it? In Part 3 we’ll explain the basics of what makes a crow cage trap legal, what makes one illegal, and the blurred line in between the two. We’ll also explain what members of the public should and shouldn’t do if you find a crow trap that you suspect is being operated illegally.