Guy Shorrock RSPB Senior Investigations Officer reports on a recent prosecution.

When Ed McBride went for one of his brisk early morning walks on a lovely day in August last year, he had no idea of the big surprise that lay ahead. Taking a slightly different route than usual he reached the corner of a large block of woodland on the edge of some farmland just to the west of Kingsclere in Hampshire.

At the corner of a pheasant release pen he saw a tawny owl hanging upside, one of its legs crushed in a metal spring trap, which had been tied to the corner post. He initially thought the bird was dead but on closer inspection found it was still just alive.

Spring traps can legally be used under cover to kill small mammals such as rats and stoats which may be a problem to gamekeepers and farmers etc. They are a trap closed by a very powerful spring and designed to kill small mammals quickly and humanely. However, it is totally illegal to set these devices in the open. Traditionally a metal spring trap, known as a ‘pole trap’, was designed for actually catching birds of prey when perching on vantage points. This gruesome device was actually outlawed way back in 1904. Despite that, the practice has still continued in quiet places on some game shooting estates using a modern day spring trap. Pheasant pens, which hold large numbers of young pheasants prior to the shooting season, naturally attract predatory birds and animals. The RSPB get a few reports of pole traps in most years, the majority of which take place at pheasant release pens.

Being unfamiliar with the operation of the trap, Mr McBride struggled for around 10 minutes before he was able to release the bird from the trap. He had nothing in which to carry the bird so, collecting the spring trap, he quickly made his way home to report the matter to the police and RSPB. As soon as the report came in, a colleague and myself set about getting our equipment together, organise a vehicle and set off in haste for Hampshire. En route, it was clear Hampshire Constabulary were having problems getting an officer allocated to the matter. This is no criticism of the police, it is simply the reality of many over-stretched police forces having to prioritise the huge array of calls that get reported to them.

We met Mr McBride and were shown the disassembled spring trap ominously covered in blood and small feathers. It was clear there would be still a short wait for the police, so having cleared the situation with them, we made our way to the wood just in case the owl was still present. It didn't take long to find the bird sat quietly on the ground a few metres away from where it had been trapped.

Tawny owl near to death following injuries from an unlawfully set spring trap in August 2013

We had no idea how long the bird had struggled in the trap, but its complete lack of energy suggested it was not going to survive. It had severe injuries to its left leg, typical of the brutal damage that spring traps can cause when used unlawfully. We were fortunate to be able to be quickly seen by a local vet, and following an examination the outcome was inevitable. The bird was given a lethal injection and finally put to peace.

So that was the start of the enquiry that led to local self-employed gamekeeper Mark Stevens. A further police visit to the same location in September found a second spring trap fastened to the same post. This time it was on a small platform partially covered with a piece of mesh. I have seen hundreds of spring traps, but never one set like this. The way the trap was covered was totally inadequate and a number of bird species could potentially have hopped onto the trap with disastrous results. Birds weighing less than a starling have been known to trigger these traps.

Hampshire Constabulary with Mark Stevens at the trapping site in September 2013

Stevens maintained this trap, and the one that caught the tawny owl in August, had actually been set for a troublesome squirrel which had been taking grain out of a feeder provided for his pheasants. Based on events described by Mr McBride and having worked on these enquiries for many years I have my own view of what may have been taking place. However, whatever the intentions of Mr Stevens, the fact remains he set two spring traps in an unlawful manner and one of these resulted in a pretty unpleasant death for a tawny owl. Some video clips of the enquiry can be viewed here.

Following some really good work by Hampshire Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), on the 31 July 2014, Stevens pleaded guilty to two charges of using spring traps in a non-approved manner ( contrary to Section 8(1)(a) Pests Act 1954).  He was fined £700 and £650 costs.

After 22 years of dealing with these issues, my own view is that it is primarily parts of the shooting industry, who employ and then either fail to manage properly or worse instruct gamekeepers to commit offences, who are the main cause of this ongoing problem. It appears they are unwilling or unable to self-police, and indeed many remain in denial about the serious conservation impacts of persecution for species like eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines.  I believe those organisations that represent gamekeepers need to do more to ensure the next generation fresh out of college are not placed in a situation where their future job prospects may be dependent on being expected to commit criminal offences. 

In addition to these wider problems, the actions of individual gamekeepers like Mr Stevens do nothing to help the image of the gamekeeping profession. I am sure many law abiding gamekeepers must despair at the way their profession continues to be portrayed. Unfortunately, I expect there will be plenty more unwanted surprises for members of the public like Mr McBride before we make serious inroads into this problem.