By Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations Scotland

On Thursday 10 January 2019, RSPB Scotland Investigations staff found a buzzard flying around in a large crow cage trap on a grouse moor in South Lanarkshire.

A still from the video showing a buzzard in a crow cage trap

Such traps can be legally used, under the conditions of general licences issued annually by Scottish Natural Heritage. The trap also contained a live carrion crow, possibly placed there as a decoy bird to attract other crows.

We have had a programme of monitoring the use of crow traps over the last two decades, which has shown us that they are very effective at catching raptors, particularly buzzards, as well as corvids. While the act of catching a raptor in such circumstances is not a crime, we have an ever-increasing dossier of evidence showing that these traps are routinely misused and that birds of prey caught in these traps are regularly killed, such as in this case and this one. However, we have also seen, or heard from others, of buzzards, red kites and eagles quite correctly being released from similar traps by their operators, unharmed, within 24 hours, as stipulated by the regulations governing these traps.

We decided to deploy a covert camera focused on the trap to check that it was being operated legally. On returning to the area the following Monday, 14 January, it was clear that the buzzard was gone and only the carrion crow could be seen flying around inside the trap.

Hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst, we then began to review the footage.

You can watch the footage here.

The first thing our film indicated was that apparently, the trap was not checked within 24 hours of the camera being deployed at lunchtime on 10 January, contrary to the regulations permitting the use of such traps. The film showed that both birds, the crow and the buzzard remained inside the trap throughout this period.  

The film then showed that, on the evening of 11 January (at 19:38), after darkness had fallen, a quad bike was driven up to beside the trap. The unknown driver stepped off and, wearing a headtorch, appeared to unlock and remove the padlock that had been securing the trap door.

Headlights appear at the trap during the night

The person then entered the trap and pulled the door closed behind them. He then appeared to strike at something on the ground in the trap. After a short time inside, they left and closed the door. As they stepped over the fence around the trap the person’s headtorch briefly illuminated their hand which appeared to be holding something. We think this may be the body of the buzzard, killed after being struck moments earlier. The person then returned to the quad bike and drove off.

Footage from the following morning, 12 January, showed that the crow was now the only bird in the trap. The camera continued recording until the following day, and indicated a second 24-hour period during which no check of the trap appeared to be made.

On completing our review of this footage, we immediately contacted Police Scotland to report our observations.

Subsequent local enquiries by the police did not identify the operator of the trap, and no-one has been charged with any offences related to the footage we captured.

Although the crow trap in question bore a numbered tag, this number is one that is issued to a trap’s owner. If a trap owner is unwilling to divulge to the police who operates a particular trap, as is their legal right, it is very difficult to establish who may have committed alleged offences at a trap, particularly if such occurred during the hours of darkness.

RSPB Scotland has long campaigned for all crow traps to be fitted with a tag allowing a named operator to be identified by statutory agencies. We also think that there should be a legal requirement for trap operators to provide relevant records of checks of a trap if requested by the police, similar to current snaring legislation in the Wildlife & Countryside Act in Scotland. Further, crow traps should not be permitted to be used in woodland or open hill situations, where the risk of bycatch of raptors and other non-target birds is high.

Raptor persecution blackspot

In other separate cases, the grouse moors in this part of South Lanarkshire have witnessed an appalling litany of raptor persecution with 72 detected confirmed incidents over the past 20 years. This has included the widespread use of banned poisons, resulting in the deaths of 24 birds of prey; the shooting of 19 raptors, including a golden eagle, red kite, hen harriers and short-eared owls; the illegal use of traps; and, the destruction of nests.

In May 2017, a masked individual was witnessed shooting a hen harrier just a few miles from where this crow trap was situated, then leaving the scene on a quad bike. Just two weeks later, a short-eared owl was also seen shot, with the perpetrator driving off in a 4x4 along a track. A shot buzzard was found in the spring of 2018, while in May 2019, a male hen harrier was trapped and suffered appalling injuries when a spring trap was set on its nest.

 We are concerned that, despite these recent previous offences, Scottish Natural Heritage has failed to implement any general licence restrictions in this area. If such had been in place, the crow trap we filmed should not have been in operation.

It is abundantly clear that, despite a long and well-publicised history of raptor persecution, with this area being one of the worst areas in Scotland for such crimes, the illegal killing of birds of prey continues here, unabated.

The actions of the “stranger in the night” at this crow trap can be added to the lengthening list of witnessed shootings and trappings of raptors; the destruction of their nests; as well confirmed illegal poisonings; and the regular disappearance of satellite-tagged birds of prey; that demonstrate a clear pattern of criminality.

Undoubtedly this latest case, where an unknown individual approached a trap along a track in a vehicle and entered the trap by unlocking a padlock on the door, will be greeted by the same hollow denials and attempts to deflect responsibility that follow publicity of most raptor persecution cases.

Time for change

Self-regulation by the grouse shooting industry has consistently failed; ingrained cultural prejudice towards birds of prey remain in many areas managed for this activity and significant reform is urgently required. Additionally, current laws and enforcement measures are also proving woefully inadequate in protecting our wildlife. This has been starkly illustrated this year, with an appalling list of horrific incidents uncovered including the spring-trapping of two hen harriers (including one just a few miles from this incident), the disappearance of two satellite-tagged golden eagles, and just recently, clear evidence of an illegally-trapped young golden eagle flying around Deeside.

We repeat our call on the Scottish Government to implement immediate robust regulation of the driven grouse shooting industry, with removal of a licence to shoot where the public authorities are satisfied that wildlife protection laws are being flouted.

These crimes have to stop. Now.