At the end of this month a gamekeeper from Nottinghamshire will be sentenced for several offences including the intentional killing of two common buzzards which were caught in a crow cage trap during harsh weather in January last year. This, and three other recent cases, have once again brought into sharp focus the concerns about the persistent misuse and abuse of these traps for the illegal taking and killing of birds of prey on land managed for game bird shooting.
Cage traps can be used legally under various government general licences to catch and kill certain birds, such as crows and magpies, for specific reasons. General Licences have come under particular scrutiny in recent years following legal challenges by Wild Justice. The conditions between the four UK countries vary significantly, with Scotland continuing to have the most progressive licences.
In general, if non-target birds, such as raptors, become accidentally caught they must be released unharmed. However, this is clearly is not happening and in early 2020 I wrote a blog ‘Licence to kill?’ which highlighted concerns about raptors being caught and killed in cage traps and the continuing lack of accountability for trap operators. Several cases involving trapped buzzards were highlighted, and that table has been updated at the end of this blog.
Scotland - still leading the way
In November 2021, a gamekeeper in Scotland, with over 30 years’ experience, was fined a fairly derisory £300 after pleading guilty to recklessly killing a barn owl and a goshawk. The birds had got into an unattended but still set cage trap and ultimately died from starvation. The Scottish General Licences clearly state that when a trap is not in use the inspection door has to be physically removed or padlocked in the open position. There is also a requirement for traps to be tagged and registered with NatureScot. So it was clear the trap had not been properly disabled and the police had an obvious line of enquiry to locate the trap operator. However, Scotland can’t rest on their laurels just yet, as there are still concerns about some of the target species on their licences and the conditions, including the time of year that traps can be operated.
This recent blog also highlights other concerns about disqualifications from using General Licences.
This barn owl, and a goshawk, died in a cage trap from the lack of food and water after the trap had not been properly disabled (Stuart Spray).
England – still lagging behind
In December a part-time gamekeeper was fined a more substantial £800 after a sparrowhawk starved to death in a cage trap in Cheshire. The operator accepted not leaving the inspection door securely in the open position, though it was suggested some unknown person had reset the trap. Particularly interesting was the observation from the defence that it would be better if the licence conditions directed the inspection door to be physically removed.
This sparrowhawk starved to death inside a cage trap – better General Licence conditions could have prevented this (Jack Ashton-Booth RSPB)
In numerous other cases no court action has been possible because trap operators could simply not be identified, or the operator claimed that somebody else had reset the trap resulting in the death of a bird being accidentally caught. The RSPB, and others, have repeatedly asked Natural England (NE) for the straightforward disablement conditions used in Scotland to be used on the English licences. For unexplained reasons this has not happened – the price of a few padlocks doesn’t seem too much to ask. Similarly, the process of trap marking and registration, which seems an obvious way forward to improve accountability for trap operators and help enforcement agencies when offences are identified, has yet to be adopted.
In many cases, it is only with the use of RSPB covert surveillance to identify trap operators and confirm offences, that prosecutions have even been possible. The graphic footage in relation to the case at the end of this month will once again highlight this. So, it is with some irony that elements within the game bird industry continue to object to the admissibility of such surveillance evidence in court, yet at the same time do not support trap marking and registration to identify irresponsible trap operators. NE clearly needs to take a firmer line to help reduce the numbers of raptors dying through the misuse and abuse of these traps and help the police and CPS investigate and prosecute offenders.
Wales – still hoping for improvement
During 2021 a review of Welsh General Licences by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) took place. The RSPB made numerous recommendations, and we very much hope they will use this opportunity to improve the licences to address the issues raised in this blog. A case from April last year again highlights our concerns. A member of public found a crow cage trap on sheep grazing farmland in North Wales containing a buzzard, a red kite and multiple crows. The finder released all the birds and reported it to us.
As with all cage traps outside Scotland, without marking and registration it can far more difficult, often impossible, to identify the trap operator. A visit by my colleague Niall Owen confirmed the presence of a lamb carcass, which should have been properly disposed of and not used as bait, along with two carrion crows. A week later the trap held two crows and a buzzard plus the bodies of two further crows. To identify a trap operator, and to determine whether the licence conditions were being complied with, a covert camera was installed for a couple of days. At this point, there was no clear contravention of the licence conditions. The buzzard was in good health, so it was left in situ and provided with fresh water and food just in case visits were not made. One dead crow was seized and sent off for a post-mortem. Two days later the buzzard was still present, thankfully alive and well, so was released unharmed. We informed North Wales Police who identified the farmer operating the trap and ensured it was rendered incapable of trapping.
RSPB released this buzzard when it was clear the cage trap was not being operated lawfully (Niall Owen RSPB).
The post-mortem on the carrion crow confirmed the bird had died of starvation, confirming further breaches of the licence conditions and animal welfare regulations. Had the original finder and ourselves not released the trapped birds, we fear they would have met the same fate. This case was about negligence rather than any deliberate targeting of birds of prey, and following the police investigation, the operator was given a Community Resolution Order. This had a requirement that they could not operate cage traps until a suitable course has been attended.
NRW have a clear opportunity to help reduce the unnecessary deaths of raptors and other birds and make operators suitably accountable. This seems entirely reasonable and proportionate and we very much hope they will take on board the recommendations made by the RSPB and others.
Northern Ireland – still a distant fourth place
There has been concern for many years that the quality of the NI General Licences is well below the standard of other UK countries. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the licensing authority, started a consultation last year but then withdrew this. There then followed a legal challenge by Wild Justice and in December DAERA conceded the issue of three General Licences allowing the killing of wild birds was unlawful and provided assurance that interim licences would be issued and a full consultation would be launched in due course. We hope these licences will be dramatically improved in the near future.
The importance of the public as our eyes and ears in the countryside, as shown by the table below, remains vital in tackling the misuse and abuse of these traps. As always, we would advise people not to damage or interfere with lawfully operated cage traps. If you have concerns about their legitimacy, perhaps where birds of prey are caught, please contact the police and ourselves via our dedicated online report form here. Our hotline 0300 999 0101 is also available for people who want to report in more confidence.
Whilst we await the Nottinghamshire sentencing result at the end of the month, as if to further highlight that this problem is not going away, we have recently initiated another significant investigation in England and have supplied police and NWCU with yet more disturbing video footage. Unfortunately, you have to wonder how many more cases, and unnecessary deaths, will it take for all the UK licensing authorities to step up and give our wildlife the protection it deserves?
A summary of cases involving buzzards found in cage traps
Associated land use
Pheasant shooting (England)
Member of public found buzzard in cage trap. RSPB did surveillance - two gamekeepers arrived, one immediately killed buzzard with a stick. Both found guilty of killing the buzzard and fined £2000.
Driven grouse moor (Scotland)
Member of public found buzzards in cage trap RSPB did surveillance – gamekeeper arrived and shot two birds with a rifle, bodies buried down rabbit holes. These were recovered along with 11 other dead buzzards inside nearby rabbit holes. Pleaded guilty to killing two buzzards – fined £200.
Driven grouse moor (England)
Member of public found buzzard in cage trap. RSPB surveillance over three days recorded no visits. Supplementary food provided and buzzard released unharmed by RSPB. Remains of two buzzards found near trap – suspected starved/killed following being caught in the cage trap. Trap operator identified but no further action by police.
Members of public found buzzards in cage trap. RSPB installed surveillance camera. Buzzards released unharmed by RSPB and public after 24-hour period. No trap visit recorded during 11 days. Gamekeeper later cautioned re illegal use of trap.
Members of public found buzzards in cage trap. RSPB installed surveillance camera. This recorded two buzzards beaten to death by a part-time gamekeeper. He also admitted killing c10 other buzzards in recent years in the same trap. Received suspended sentence following a guilty plea to killing seven buzzards.
RSPB found buzzard in cage trap and installed surveillance camera. Buzzard released within 24 hours.
RSPB found buzzard in cage trap and installed video camera. Later review showed that on the evening of the following day during darkness a vehicle arrived. Person entered trap, believed to have killed buzzard, and body taken away. Suspect not identified.
Members of public found buzzard in cage trap. RSPB installed surveillance camera. Buzzard present for at least 15 hours. The bird was released unharmed but the fact two men, presumed gamekeepers, arrived on a nice day with their faces fully covered may indicate the trap had not been checked for more than the required 25 hours.
Farmland for sheep (Wales)
Following report from public, a buzzard later found in a cage trap. RSPB installed surveillance camera and provided fresh water and food. Buzzard present for at least two days before being released unharmed by RSPB. Farmer received Community Resolution Order with requirement for suitable training.
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