Crow traps: what you should know part 2

Following on from our earlier blog – Crow traps: what you should know part 1 (here)

The following information concerns the use of crow cage traps in Scotland; they are also used in other parts of the UK although the terms of use differ slightly (see here for information on their use in England, here for Wales and here for Northern Ireland).

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.

Crow trap use is governed by a general licence, issued annually by Scottish Natural Heritage (see here). These licences are issued for the purpose of either (a) the conservation of wild birds, (b) to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables and fruit, and (c) to protect public health, public safety and prevent the spread of disease. Trap operators need not ‘apply’ for an individual licence, hence the name ‘general’ licence. Each general licence is subject to strict conditions (discussed in Part 3). If the trap operator complies with all the conditions of the general licence then the use of the crow trap is legal. However, in practice some of these conditions are ambiguous at best, and this is recognised by SNH who undertake regular consultations aimed at clarifying the terms of use (e.g. see here for their latest consultation plans).

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.

Talking of loopholes….we’ve touched on this briefly in previous posts….in 2008 a new condition was added to the terms of use of the general licences. That new condition was that anyone who had a previous wildlife crime conviction was not allowed to use the general licence unless their conviction was considered ‘spent’, i.e. after five years from conviction. (Although even if you did have a recent conviction you could still apply for use of the licence and each case would be considered on merit, so it’s not quite the draconian condition that some imply). However, in 2009 the condition (of being banned for five years) was modified and we don’t recall any consultation about the insertion of this modification! The new modification says that you can still use the general licence if the sentence you received for your wildlife crime was an ‘admonishment’. Talk about a get-out clause! You might think this modification was quite reasonable, after all, an admonishment (effectively a telling off) is only given for minor offences, right? WRONG!!! Because there aren’t any mandatory sentences for wildlife crime offences in Scotland, a sheriff can choose a sentence at will (within the boundaries of sentencing limits at a Sheriff court, of course). In 2010, a sheriff imposed an admonishment on Graham Kerr, a gamekeeper on the Redmyre Estate, for possession of the banned pesticides Carbofuran and Alphachloralose (see here). The maximum penalty available was a £5000 fine and/or a six month prison term, reflecting the gravity of this type of offence. Had Kerr not also been handed a £400 fine for shooting a buzzard on the Redmyre Estate, his admonishment would have allowed him to continue using the general licence to operate a crow cage trap. In our opinion this is outrageous. What’s the point of having a condition of a five-year ban for a wildlife criminal if that condition is modified based on the whim of a sheriff’s sentencing choice rather than the nature of the actual criminal offence committed? It’s total nonsense. Why was this modification added to the terms of the general licence and who instigated its inclusion in 2009 and who approved it? Was anyone given the opportunity to object to its inclusion? Perhaps a Freedom of Information request is called for here…

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.

2 thoughts on “Crow traps: what you should know part 2”

  1. A few simple regulations can help. I was a wildlife police officer myself in Belgium. The regulation there is that the owner of the ground need a permission for every trap, and every trap needs to be indicated on a map. The minimum size of the maze is 5 cm, small birds can escape. It is illegal to put dead or alive bate in the traps, only organic bate is allowed such as grain, fruit and so on. Every trap has to be checked every 24 hour, same as in Scotland. With these regulations it is unlikely that raptors will be trapped. If trapped they need to be released. The limitation in time is 16 February till 10 July in woodland en van 16 February till 15 October on open ground.
    Every trap must be located on a map 1/10.000 scale. No traps can be activated without the permission of the owner of the ground. In the application for using a trap it must be made clear that there are no other possibilities to reduce the damage caused by crows or magpies.

  2. I would like to send pictures to you of a an estate that loves killing and trapping innocent animals. For there pleasure

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: