Do government General Licences which allow lethal control of certain bird species using cage traps afford enough protection to birds of prey? With the General Licences for bird control currently under scrutiny, and the English ones due to expire at the end of February 2020, we believe this is an opportunity to ensure the system keeps protected birds of prey safe.
In February last year the newly formed not for-profit organisation Wild Justice, one of whose three directors is Chris Packham, challenged Natural England about some of the legal basis for the General Licences. These have been in use for over 20 years and permit authorised persons, typically landowners or persons with their permission, to undertake acts which would normally be unlawful under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. For example, farmers may control wood pigeons to protect crops, or local authorities may act in relation to feral pigeons because of public health concerns.
The stakes were further raised when, at the start of last week, Wild Justice also challenged the legitimacy of General Licences issued by Natural Resources Wales. Rounding off the week on Friday, Scottish National Heritage announced forthcoming changes to its General Licences from 1 April this year. As well as removing a few species – but perhaps not as many as we’d like - it also, which is relevant to this blog, announced there will be a new cage trap registration process.
All the General Licences for wildlife management, and their conditions of use, are available online. The ones for England are here. Over the years there have been several consultations and as a result conditions have been updated, and changes made, such as the list of species which can be lawfully controlled.
Following the challenge by Wild Justice, on 23 April 2019 something of a furore erupted when Natural England announced that it was revoking several General Licences commonly relied on for ‘pest’ control. They started re-issuing new General Licences for individual bird species, and produced them for carrion crow, wood pigeon and Canada goose. In a further twist, Defra took up the issue and after a ‘call for evidence’ (RSPB response here), on 14 June issued three new General Licences covering multiple species. In September, a Defra consultation exercise took place about future General Licences. The response from the RSPB can be viewed here.
Multi-catch cage traps can lawfully be used to control corvids. However, birds of prey can also enter these traps and may be killed rather than released (H Jones).
Legal issues aside, one constant concern for the RSPB has been the fact the licences allow the use of multi catch cage traps, and that such traps continue to be misused and abused to capture and kill birds of prey. The traps typically consist of a large wooden frame covered in mesh with an access point on the top. They act in much the same way as a lobster pot. Once a corvid enters to get to food or to interact with a bird already in the trap, it is unable to escape. Traps must be checked daily, target birds killed humanely and anything which may have entered by accident released unharmed.
A key issue of concern is that the current licencing system in England and Wales, whilst allowing people to kill birds which would otherwise be protected, makes it near impossible for the owners and users of cage traps to be held to account. A large sporting estate may employ half a dozen gamekeepers using numerous cage traps. If a problem with one of these is identified, whether a relatively minor breach of General Licence conditions, or something more serious like the deliberate targeting of birds of prey, it can be impossible to identify who is actually responsible for that particular trap at that particular time. I have lost track of the number of cases where police cannot investigate cage trap offences because the user cannot be identified, and nobody is prepared to admit responsibility.
This cage trap in the Peak District NP was deliberately baited with a live white dove. RSPB surveillance identified the gamekeeper using the trap who was later convicted (G Shorrock).
The abuse cases can appear quite blatant, such as baiting a cage trap with a live pigeon to change it from a corvid trap to an illegal hawk trap. However, even if a person admits responsibility for the trap, they could easily claim the pigeon had got in there accidentally and that it would have been released during the next daily inspection. RSPB Investigations have used covert surveillance on numerous occasions to identify trap users, who have arrived and not released the pigeon, and even provided this bird food and water to keep it healthy as a live bait for raptors. The only ever custodial sentence served for raptor persecution came from abuse of cage traps, and relied on RSPB surveillance evidence.
Misuse cases can be even more problematic as a cage trap may be set up perfectly correctly for corvids and draw no real attention. However, birds of prey will regularly enter these traps whilst looking for food. Birds of prey have been found dead inside cage traps having entered and simply starved to death because traps have not been checked on a daily basis or disabled properly. Establishing the trap user can be very difficult, and cases where the operator has claimed the trap was left unset and ‘somebody’ must have come along and set it are usually impossible to challenge. At least in Scotland they have tightened up the conditions on disabling out-of-use traps, which should guard against this type of excuse.
If a buzzard accidentally enters a cage trap what are its chances of being released unharmed?
So what are the chances of a raptor that enters a cage trap being released unharmed? The simple answer is that we don’t know. However, we do know of seven cases where live buzzards were found in what appeared to be lawful cage traps. This provides a disturbing insight into what may be going on regularly in our countryside. The cage traps were, on the face of it, lawfully set for corvids and all the trap user had to do was open the inspection door and let the birds go. We decided to monitor the traps, either by waiting and watching or installing a covert video camera, to see whether the licence was complied with (the birds were released if nobody attended within a reasonable time).
Astonishingly, in only one case did the trap user turn up and let the buzzard go within 24 hours as required by the General Licence, ironically on one of the estates with the worst persecution histories in the UK! In two cases the traps were not checked within the 24-hour period and we had to release buzzards ourselves to minimise the risk of them starving to death.
But in three cases when the trap was inspected the buzzards were immediately killed either being bludgeoned to death or shot. In the most recent case in Scotland, it is believed this buzzard was killed and removed during the hours of darkness. The table below provides a quick summary of these cases.
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 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. 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.
RSPB covert footage showed two buzzards being bludgeoned to death rather than being released. The gamekeeper received a suspended jail sentence and also admitted killing another ten buzzards caught in the same cage trap ( H Jones).
Whilst a small sample size, this is a disturbing illustration of the General Licences providing a smokescreen for illegal activity and it is worrying to think of just how many raptors are killed or starve to death in relation to the use of cage traps.
I recently attended a meeting in London hosted by Defra to seek views from several organisations about the future conditions on General Licences. There was an encouraging consensus on several issues, but as expected there was some disagreement, with some organisations wanting less licence conditions to make life easier for people operating lawfully under the General Licences.
From the law enforcement angle, RSPB Investigations has extensive experience in this area, and we are very concerned about ensuring trap owners and users can be reliably identified. We believe this will increase accountability, help the statutory agencies investigate potential offences and improve overall standards of compliance. In 2008, changes were made to the Scottish General Licences to introduce a cage trap marking system to increase accountability. This had a number of shortfalls and it will be interesting to see how the new registration system starting on the 1 April actually works.
Outside Scotland, the need to increase accountability for cage traps has, for some reason, been resisted. In the recent consultation response the RSPB has made several suggestions to try to address this, these include: -
We believe anybody operating under the General Licences should be doing so in a professional capacity and that these are reasonable conditions to which cage trap users and owners should adhere.
The current English General Licences are due to expire at the end of February and we expect the new licences, as with the Welsh ones, may well attract further interest from Wild Justice. Whatever happens, we remain convinced that any future General Licences, in addition to being lawfully issued, need clear conditions that make cage trap owners and users properly accountable. These would allow the enforcement agencies to properly investigate cases of misuse and abuse and make the countryside far safer for birds of prey.
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