News emerged this week, via the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s (SGA) e-newsletter for members that it is currently ‘negotiating with Government’ for the creation of a new offence relating to trap damage:
This is really quite interesting. The SGA, with others, has been arguing for several years that legally-set traps have been ‘tampered with’ or damaged by members of the public and these claims usually occur just after an illegally-set trap has been discovered and reported in the media. A recent example of this was the male hen harrier that was found in considerable distress with its leg almost severed in an illegally-set trap on Leadhills Estate (see here).
[Male hen harrier found with an almost severed leg, caught in an illegally-set spring trap next to its nest on Leadhills Estate (see here). Nobody has been prosecuted for this barbaric crime but the estate has had its use of the General Licence restricted by SNH as a direct result of this and other offences (see here)].
The implication of such claims has seemed clear – instead of accepting that some gamekeepers continue to break the law (e.g. by setting illegal traps), the shooting industry would rather deflect the blame on to so-called ‘animal rights extremists’ who are accused of ‘setting up estates’.
During a cross-party RACCE committee hearing in 2013, then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse said there was no evidence to support claims of widespread trap tampering/damage by ‘activists’ (see here) although it emerged that BASC was undertaking a survey to assess the extent of this alleged problem.
A couple of years later in 2015 that BASC survey revealed that trap tampering/damage did take place but according to industry evidence, it couldn’t be described as being a ‘widespread’ issue (see here).
In 2017 the SGA again complained of a so-called ‘escalation’ in trap damage and again attributed this to ‘activists’ but as we reported at the time (see here), yet again the evidence was lacking.
Let’s be clear here though. It is quite evident, just looking through social media, that some members of the public are indeed deliberately damaging traps to render them unusable, either because they have an ethical objection to the killing of native wildlife to increase gamebird stocks, or because they’ve become so frustrated with what they perceive to be a lack of enforcement action against the criminal gamekeepers, or because they believe the trap to be illegal. The legislation on trap use is complicated and many members of the public are simply unaware of what is legal and what is illegal. (For a basic introduction have a look at this from OneKind and this from Revive).
To be honest, we’d welcome some clarity on what constitutes ‘tampering’ or ‘damage’. At the moment it is not at all clear and trap tampering may not always constitute a criminal offence. For example, the SGA’s lawyer, David McKie, wrote in a 2013 edition of the SGA’s members’ rag:
‘As a matter of law, there is a significant difference between interference and vandalism.
Vandalism would involve the breaking of a crow cage trap by someone punching or kicking a hole in it, for example, or the deliberate smashing up of a Fenn trap. It would also include the cutting of snares.
Interference does not necessarily involve a criminal offence….That can involve the removal of traps from their set location, the release of decoy birds or the pulling of snares.
The police can probably not charge the individual with interference’.
In some cases there may be a legitimate defence to causing trap damage – e.g. if a trapped animal is seen to be injured inside a padlocked crow cage trap and needs urgent veterinary attention, but the location is remote and there’s no phone signal to call for help, it might be considered reasonable to cut the trap wire to extricate the wounded animal. Much will depend on the individual circumstances of each incident.
Another example might be the discovery of what is obviously an illegally-set trap. Is it an offence to disable it if there is absolutely no question that it’s been set unlawfully? As an example, here’s a pole trap that was photographed on an estate in the Angus Glens. It’s been an offence to set pole traps for over 100 years!
[An illegal pole trap, photograph by RSPB]
It’d be kind of ironic if a member of the public was prosecuted for disabling such a pole trap, when the person who allegedly set it (a gamekeeper was filmed by the RSPB attending the trap) had the prosecution against him dropped by the Crown Office because the video evidence was deemed inadmissible!
So, yes, regardless of the extent of trap tampering / damage, greater clarity is certainly required on what constitutes an offence. However, given how long we’ve been waiting for the Scottish Government to bring in new legislation to tackle the persistent illegal persecution of birds of prey on sporting estates, that’s happening at such a scale it’s known to be affecting entire populations of some of these species, the trap tampering offence that the SGA claims to be ‘negotiating’ should be way down the list of Government priorities.
UPDATE 12 May 2020: Parliamentary questions on proposed new offences for trap damage (here)
UPDATE 16 May 2020: Scottish Government denies ‘negotiating’ with gamekeepers on new offences for trap damage (here)