Gamekeeper cautioned after merlin killed in illegally-set trap on grouse moor

This merlin was found dead in a trap on an un-named driven grouse moor in Northumberland in July this year. A fell runner discovered the bird and reported it to the RSPB.

The RSPB went to the site the next day and realised that this trap had been illegally-set as no attempts had been made to restrict access to the tunnel entrance, meaning non-target species (such as this merlin) could easily access the tunnel, with the inevitable result.

The incident was reported to Northumbria Police and a wildlife crime officer visited the site with an RSPB investigator.

An ‘experienced’ gamekeeper was formally interviewed and admitted setting the trap. Unbelievably, the police decided to issue him with a police caution instead of seeking a prosecution via the Crown Prosecution Service.

Haven’t we been here before? Ah yes, here and here.

Once again, another gamekeeper gets let off for committing a wildlife crime on a driven grouse moor. And before anyone says, ‘A caution isn’t a let off’, it absolutely is if this gamekeeper is permitted to keep his firearms and shotgun certificates, and his job, despite now having a criminal record.

Sure, he probably didn’t intend to trap and kill this merlin but that’s not the point. If he’s employed as a professional gamekeeper he has a responsibility to operate his traps within the terms of the law. With this trap, he chose not to do that, knowing full well that a non-target species could be killed, which it was. That’s an offence and he should have been charged and prosecuted.

Further details about this merlin case can be read on the RSPB Investigations Team blog here

51 thoughts on “Gamekeeper cautioned after merlin killed in illegally-set trap on grouse moor”

  1. Cautioned ? In other words got away with it. The terrible suffering that fkn idiot caused and he get’s cautioned….and will doubtless allow it to happen again. He should be sent down so he has time to properly consider his disgusting crime……

  2. Seems to me that this one might have been a good case to test the definition of ‘tunnel’. An enclosed dark space is less likely to attract any of the avian by-catch, isn’t it? Lack of restriction notwithstanding.

  3. To help these people understand the actual pricelessness of the things they kill, I think they should be charged with the full cost of bringing it back to life, more than the value of the Estate. So, if such a wildlife crime happens on an estate, that’s it for the estate, it goes to the public.

  4. Will you be covering ”SNH under fire over wild bird cull licences” from SCOTSMAN.COM? The fact that licences are given for robins & blackbirds could bring the real nature of SNH to a far wider public. Everyone loves robins &blackbirds

    1. Yes please more info.
      According to Scotsman – on the kill list: Swift (1 unlimited licence), Kestrel (1 unlimited licence), Buzzards (x 8 licences!), Barn Owl (1 licence for up to 5), Ringed Plover, Swallow, House Martin, Robin, Blackbird, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser etc. and 2 that can kill anything at all.

  5. Even with the legal restriction this is going to be indiscriminate up to a certain size. I agree with bimbling that covering the tunnel may make it more targeted. Shouldn’t be allowed anyway. I would like to see someone quantify any benefit this sort of trapping brings to a grouse moor.

  6. Why not name the estate? The gamekeeper has admitted the offence, so what is there to gain by protecting them?

  7. For some considerable time I have thought that ANY rail trap is technically illegal, a cage however restricted an entrance it has is still a cage not a tunnel and a cage doesn’t entirely attempt to exclude birds because they are occasionally caught. If as I have seen on a couple of estates the cage is covered with green fine mesh or capillary matting it becomes a tunnel with restricted light and hence far less likely to catch birds.

    The current law says two interesting things. That where a spring trap is approved for use against a particular mammal species then
    1. ‘so far as is practicable without unreasonably compromising its use for killing or taking target species, the trap must be used in a manner that minimises the likelihood of its killing, taking or injuring non-target species’.
    2. Furthermore for the spring traps commonly used for rail traps that ‘The trap must be set in a natural or artificial tunnel which is, in either case, suitable for the purpose’.
    In relation to the first part, there is a question whether this is in conflict with Section 11 Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which states that it is an offence ‘if any person sets in position any of the following articles, being an article which is of such a nature and so placed as to be calculated (Scotland uses term ‘likely’) to cause bodily injury to any wild animal included in Schedule 6 which comes into contact therewith’

    I do not believe that clause one is met by a wire cage with a covering and I also think that any opening at the ends greater than 5x5cm should be treated also as an offence as all targets can get through that restriction and most non targets cannot.

    As to this particular case a caution FFS another opportunity missed not only to really prosecute this offender but to test the whole edifice of rail traps in court and send an appropriate message to the whole grouse bothering cabal.

    1. I totally agree.

      Tests performed (abroad) to identify traps which are compliant with humaneness criteria set out in the international Agreement on Humane Trapping Standards found that traps with manufactured tunnels with standard size entrances and baffles were more likely to be humane because they forced the animal’s head into a position where the head rather than the spine was likely to be smashed. My suspicion is that if manufactured tunnels (with secure covering and standard size entrances and tunnels for specific target animals) had to be used then the chances of non target species being killed and injured by these vile devices would be significantly reduced. It is incredible that they are allowed to knock up wire mesh coverings for traps with random nails at the entrances and that is deemed legal!

      The standard of intent is also ridiculously high. Any experienced gamekeeper should know that leaving the ends of the tunnel open was leaving open the potential for a non target species to be caught. Negligence rather than deliberate intent should be the standard with the potential rather than the likelihood of capture of non target species.

      It’s sickening and so is the leniency with which this terrible crime was treated.

  8. Why no prosecution? Easy answer. An invite to the Chief Constable to some weekend country house shoot, perchance? A nice wee donation to the Police Widows fund, possibly? I was raised on a Scottish Borders Estate and saw/knew of both of the above, admittedly over 50 years ago, but “plus ca change”?

  9. The keeper may not have intended to trap a Merlin, but I feel sure that if he had inspected the trap before anyone else encountered it, he would have regarded it as a bonus.

  10. Yes, we definitely have been here before! The mistake by NY Police in the Mossdale case was unforgivable – but at least it wasn’t preceded by a widely publicised Police blunder such as we have here. Fen trap illegally set in both cases. Wouldn’t you have thought that alarm bells would have rung throughout Northumbria Police when they heard about this one. It will be interesting to see the Police explanation for the decision to let the keeper off with a caution. He must have thought all his Christmases had come at once!

  11. After this caution it would be interesting to see whether the same sort of traps (set in the same way) remain in use on this estate. If they do then the Police/CPS would have some thinking to do.

    1. Yes, worth reading to expose it.

      Aims of the simple caution scheme

      “The aims of the simple caution scheme are:
      • To offer a proportionate response to low-level offending where the
      offender has admitted the offence;
      • To deliver swift, simple and effective justice that carries a deterrent
      • To record an individual’s criminal conduct for possible reference in
      future criminal proceedings or in criminal record or other similar
      • To reduce the likelihood of re-offending;
      • To increase the amount of time police officers spend dealing with
      more serious crime and reduce the amount of time officers spend
      completing paperwork and attending court, whilst simultaneously
      reducing the burden on the courts. ”

      In other words the aim is to give every possible appearance of using the weight of the law against offenders whist stopping short of actually achieving anything worthwhile (apart from helping the criminals).
      Damned farce !

  12. In the last few months we’ve seen a whole range of species caught in these pseudo tunnel traps. Many birds, and many protected species. This is self-evidently just the tip of the iceberg found by responsible members of the public, as most of these traps will be set well away from areas the public are likely to come across.

    The entrance to that tunnel is far too big.

    However, I think that is time to totally reassess the traps that are allowed to be used, and the whole practise of massacring native wildlife to protect game birds. A whole range of traps, from these so called humane traps, to snares and Larsen traps, self-evidently cause serious suffering. Subjecting an animal to this type of thing in anything but the context of gamekeeping would be considered cruel and monstrous. An ethical blind-eye is turned, because it is seen the need to kill these animals overrides the welfare issue – but how and why?

    How can shooting game birds, ritualistically in vast numbers, possibly be considered an overriding need, which necessitates turning a blind eye to perpetrating horrible cruelty? Especially when it is also often accompanied by the quite deliberate killing and persecution of protected species?

    Only because we have an establishment steeped in Victorian game shooting traditions, can it make sense to consider that there is an overriding need to allow this barbaric practise. Much of this game shooting is nothing about killing quarry to eat. Many of those who shoot, never eat what they shoot, and often the shot game is simply disposed of.

    1. Talking about massacring native wildlife, I’d apply the same term to shooting thousands of Red Grouse!

    2. Steb1, that is a very succinct appraisal of just where we stand – right now! Put as clearly as that and with the right images it would publicise the issue very well. How about a leaflet, a short video clip or whatever means we can to tell it like you’ve told it here.

      1. I’ve been working on how to formulate and explain this. We are stuck in a trap of taking so much of this for granted. These so called traditions aren’t really that old, and driven shooting was only introduced into Britain in the 19th Century. We need to question why this is just accepted as a given. I’m personally not that creative, but have no objections to any more creative person using these ideas.

        1. I assume these traps are set for the likes of stoats and mink – if that is the case then why are they set on exposed sites like the top of logs which are accesible to all types of wildlife. Surely they should be set under logs or in tunnels among dense vergetation??

  13. that bird is feeding of the rat that was caught in the legal trap initially plus these photos were not taken by a wildlife officer its just the usual lacs drivel and lies the bird is mantling over its feed in the first two pictures same in the last ones to that fenn trap would have knocked feathers every where

    1. Utter bollocks, the bird is dead caught in the trap and how could it feed on a rat in the trap and be caught. It doesn’t matter who took the pictures its a schedule one bird caught in a trap with no restricted entrance a crime on both counts. NOTE TO IDIOT the keeper admitted the offence or a caution is not available

    2. You need to get yourself to Specsavers. Are you seriously suggesting that the finder, the RSPB and the Police so significantly misread the findings? Would the keeper have admitted it if it hadn’t happened? I know which direction the (unpunctuated) drivel and lies are coming from.

    3. Dear outraged David Tongue, are you serious? I think it’s high time you gave up your career as an apologist for the criminal element in the shooting industry.

  14. Just when you think your jaw can drop no lower, a case like this comes along to remind you just how bad things are when it comes to enforcing the laws against wildlife crime.

  15. I think the reasoning behind the caution rather than prosecution was probably down to the CPS not being convinced of a conviction.
    For example is it right there is no actual ruling in the size of the entrance to the trap ie now set dimensions.
    If this is true shouldn’t we be asking for clearer definition

    1. If it had gone to court then the CPS brief would have thrown the trial, or had the judge let them off anyway. They are all in it together.

    2. There may not be any defined specifications, as such, but in the third image down the end of the ‘tunnel’ shows no attempt whatsoever to restrict the entrance – the width of which is clearly indicated. This is the worst example I have ever seen and it beggars belief that this case did not proceed to a prosecution.

  16. It’s unusual for a keeper to make any admissions. If he’d given a no comment interview then, in the absence of any other evidence, he might well have got away with it.

    Maybe it was agreed in advance that if he admitted to setting the trap he wouldn’t be prosecuted.

  17. Vera Baird PCC for Northumbria has a Putting Victims First scheme. Although PCCs don’t interfere in individual cases folks might like to ask her where the voiceless fit into that initiative,

    1. Ha – all those walkers and wind farms you see scaring off raptors but not grouse, curlews and lapwings! What a sick joke.

  18. I think that the elephant in the room here is that to most gamekeepers Merlin IS a ‘target species’ because it is a predator. ANY animal or bird that has only the POTENTIAL to reduce the number of grouse available for the bag is the enemy. An example of this is the Mountain hare. Not even a predator, but may be a threat through being a vector for disease. Result: kill all the mountain hares because there is somehow ‘too many’ of them. It’s a farce. The gamekeeper in question was ‘experienced’ and knew what he was doing. How many more Merlin has he caught on that moor without a fell runner passing by to report to RSPB?

    1. Even if it is true that mountain hares are serious vectors of louping ill to grouse, it would be interesting to hear of any scientific evidence that culling the hares solves this alleged ‘problem.’ As the ultimate objective of the grouse moor managers is to produce ever larger post-breeding populations of grouse, to maximise income, is there any evidence that the transmission from grouse to grouse at such unnaturally high densities reduces or aggravates the overall infection rate? Would it lead to even more toxic chemicals being introduced to the environment? If someone nowadays were to suggest we introduced the practice of grouse shooting, surely it would not be permitted under the guidance of an Environmental Impact Assessment? The shooters can’t get away with it by conjuring up pseudo-evidence that their antiquated hobby is ‘sustainable.’ That word on its own can be meaningless without sound evidence.

  19. Grouse moor management is extreme; destroy the natural wildlife, destroy the natural vegetation, scar the hills, drain the hills, flood the valleys; by any means, legal, illegal, barbaric, cruel, crude. Its managers are ruthless and politicians love to cosy up to them; Michael Gove, Fergus Ewing.

  20. This incident highlights precisely why police cannot be relied upon to deal with wildlife crime effectively or consistently.

    1. In Northumberland the most amazing man, John Gill, has photographed, reported and campaigned about traps and snares for nearly 25 years. His knowledge is unsurpassable yet his complaints have been met by the police, MPs and others with powers to change things with disdain and contempt. He has found himself repeatedly arrested even when trying to report crimes. Police have left him waiting all day to respond to complaints he has made yet any complaint from gamekeepers seems to be responded to with the greatest of urgency. If his experiences in Northumberland are anything to go by don’t expect any help from Northumbria police.

      I’ve had police ask me if I have a freezer to put a badger carcass in cos they didn’t want to put the shot animal in their car. I don’t so they left it, spoke to the landowner and, within 2 hours, guess what? The body disappeared!

      Northumbria police are useless and a disgrace.

  21. The RSPB blog refers to forthcoming changes in the type of trap used for trapping stoats. A new form of trap, costing roughly twice as much as those used currently, is to be introduced. Apparently the existing form of trap will remain legally usable to trap weasels and rats. The blog highlights the possibility that the existing form of trap might continue to be used where stoats are an issue, their capture no doubt being claimed to have been a by-catch of attempts to trap the smaller target species.

    Given that the change in specification of trap type for taking stoats is on humane grounds, why isn’t the current form of trap – which will continue to catch stoats if there are any around – being banned. This is yet another concession to the shooting and trapping fraternity which further muddies the water on a trap-related issue. Defra should be looking to tidy things up, not create further loopholes in this already muddled minefield of an issue.

    The most straightforward solution, which would completely avoid any such confusion, would be to ban this abhorrent practice altogether.

    1. Why kill stoats anyway? They are effectively a threatened species due to their persecution by gamekeepers, and surely deserve statutory protection as much as any other wild animal? I’d like to look forward to the day when predators are treated with equal respect, and our society rids itself of prejudice. Compassion should be shown to all animals, not just ‘survival of the cutest’!

      1. On looking further into this matter, I note that the GWCT have updated their original blog on this issue. See: This blog shows what a dog’s breakfast the whole situation has become. There is still an absence of total clarity but it would appear that the current traps in use, such as the Fenn trap, will become unlawful from 01/04/20 in England and 01/01/20 in Scotland. There is also a reference to reviewing tunnel traps to take account of the bigger traps being introduced to ensure the humane killing of stoats.

        It is clear that the doubts over the humane killing of stoats in Fenn etc. traps have existed for a long time. The lack of urgency in resolving this matter is simply inexcusable, though the GWCT blog does give some indication of the causes of the delay. Let’s hope that any review of tunnel traps takes on board the current, totally unsatisfactory situation – as highlighted in recent RPUK blogs – and ensures that some form of standardised requirements, in terms of both structure and appropriate restriction of entrances, will ensue. If the statutory bodies are not going to address this, then might we expect a more positive approach from such as the GWCT and BASC on this vexed issue?

    2. This is what the GWCT were telling their members in their blog about the legislative changes following implementation of the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards …

      “GWCT represent research and practice at meetings with DEFRA and we are in discussion with Scottish Government and SASA (Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture) about what the next trap legislation change will say.

      We know that this legislation change is irreversible, regardless of Brexit, and as discussions stand at the moment we have until July 2018 for all stoat traps to be compliant with AIHTS….

      After this date Fenn-type traps may still be used to take rats and other approved species; but it will not be a defence to say, “But I set it for a rat/weasel/squirrel, Officer…” should a stoat be found caught.”

      There are three traps that are likely to be approved by Defra. One make, manufactured by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, is a Fenn type trap, which was approved IIRC about 6 years ago so the AIHTS could have been implemented by the agreement deadline – July 2016 (along with Russia, Canada, USA and every other EU country) but the UK government has delayed implementation until 2019. The cost of the new traps was a factor which the shooting lobby argued should be a criteria to disqualify the DOC trap from being approved.

      1. Does anyone not realise, that apart from the issue of illegal persecution of specially protected raptors, the whole ethos of ‘pest control’ could be a significant waste of people’s lives, not to mention financial resources? So far I’ve had difficulty finding any research which properly examines the relationship between grouse and species which are presumed to reduce the availability of grouse for shooting. Can anyone direct me to the result of MODERN research which compared grouse populations on keepered moors, against control moors where predators were left alone? I find it rather irritating that one group (conservationists) argues against the other (wildlife killers) about methods of trapping or other means of killing predators, when we can’t actually be certain that such control is necessary in the first place. Even if predators do reduce the grouse available, all that needs to change is that grouse shooters practice restraint and be less greedy. That seems extremely unlikely, and my own personal opinion is that all recreational killing of wild animals should come to an end. Under present circumstances I can only dream! As for the urge to kill so-called ‘pest’ predators, it strikes me as a legacy from days long ago when synecology was very poorly misunderstood. Society needs to seriously consider whether the local or even widespread killing of our wildlife is ethically acceptable, in order to pleasure a very small, over-indulgent and demanding minority of the human population.

  22. As a matter of interest does anyone know how, if at all, the usual grouse shooting interests have responded to this case? If their claims of caring about raptors are genuine, then surely they would deplore the trapping of a protected species, the inadequacies of the trap and the undue leniency of the action taken.

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