A male has received a caution by North Yorkshire Police for the illegal setting of three pole traps on a grouse moor near Hawes in North Yorkshire.

It is certainly not every day that you receive a call telling you that three set pole traps have been found out on a driven grouse moor in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Pole traps consist of a powerful spring trap illegally set in the open on a prominent perching place, and synonymous with the trapping of birds of prey. These barbaric devices, banned as long ago as 1904, cause horrific injuries to the legs of raptors and have no place in the 21st century. At first you struggle to comprehend the information you have been told. A discovery of one pole trap is a rare find but to find three set along a hillside seems unbelievable. You try to rationalise it and tell yourself the finder has made an innocent mistake. You then see the pictures. There is no mistake. However, what most brings home the seriousness of the situation is that the finder also reported a female hen harrier hunting nearby over the same fell. Whether or not this was the intended target the fact remains that hen harriers and other upland raptors remain acutely vulnerable to these traps. This is no ordinary day.

Upland raptors like the hen harrier remain acutely vulnerable to pole traps (Mark Hamblin)

Uncovering the continued persecution of raptors is the lifeblood of the RSPB Investigations team. We know it is happening, but proving it, and continuing to prove it and then reprove it, is always the ultimate challenge and what drives us. The wealth of science out there is increasingly highlighting why the UK uplands are missing birds of prey. Illegal persecution is the main factor limiting the breeding success of species such as hen harrier, golden eagle and peregrine falcon in large areas of the uplands. This science, built through years of research, is the biggest indicator of what is going on upon the driven grouse moors and the scale of the damage. However, showing how the damage is physically done is so important in directly tackling the excuses and denial.

Furthermore, very little surprises us about North Yorkshire when it comes to raptor persecution. The county has consistently held the worst record in England and Wales. The recent emergence that police are investigating eight separate red kite incidents, some birds already confirmed as shot, in North and West Yorkshire yet again highlights the issues in this region. Rather more positive is the very recent news that T/ACC Amanda Oliver of the North Yorkshire Police has just taken on the UK Wildlife Crime lead. Hopefully, this will signal better fortunes for the beleaguered raptors in this county.

Spring is a demanding time for the Investigations team. Not least the team have to step up to deal with the flood of reports that come into the office during this period. For field staff, there then is a heavy schedule of work looking to gather vital evidence fuelled by the reports that come into the team. This year we had again been incredibly busy and had already been buoyed by some success, yet we are always alert to other opportunities that may occur. Consequently, the report of the three pole traps on the 6 May this year meant any other plans for that day were immediately abandoned. Speed was of the essence. Colleagues and I arrived at the remote spot on the north side of Widdale Fell, on the Mossdale Estate, shortly before darkness later that day. Three isolated fence posts all around a metre high were spread in a line over about 270 metres, nicely tucked away so that it was unlikely for anyone to ever come across them, and along the side of a ridge that appeared like a decent spot for drawing in raptors. Not your average Friday night.

One of the three pole traps found set on Widdale Fell (RSPB)

Two of the traps had already been sprung by the finder; the third was still set to catch. We made the trap safe. Ominously, at least two of the traps had signs suggesting that birds may already have fallen victim to these cruel devices. Having installed covert cameras on two of the traps we left in darkness. We returned in anticipation the following Monday evening. All three spring traps had been reset upon their posts. Somebody had been busy. Having documented the scene and made the traps safe, we quickly reviewed the video footage and sure enough there was a male attending to reset them earlier that same day (see video link below). The way he swiftly reset one of the spring traps suggested he was well practised with these devices.

RSPB recording one of the three pole traps which had been reset earlier that day (RSPB)

Getting ready to leave, we were forced to wait a while as a pick-up vehicle quietly cruised along in the gloom, with lights off, along a track in the valley below. Again leaving the site in darkness, the mood was temporarily lightened as one of my colleagues disappeared waist deep into a peat bog before we all crashed into bed well past midnight.

Suspect caught setting the pole trap on Widdale Fell

Early the next morning, we reported the incident to North Yorkshire Police. We were fortunate to get the services of three Wildlife Crime Officers along with the enthusiastic support of the Sergeant in charge of the recently formed Rural Policing Taskforce . Modelled on the highly successful team in North Wales, we hope this will focus some of its resources on the serious raptor persecution problem within this county. Having discussed the best way forward, we returned to Widdale Fell with the police. The traps were as we had left them the previous evening and were documented and seized by the police.

North Yorkshire Police documenting and seizing the pole traps on Widdale Fell (RSPB)

We were highly encouraged by the efforts of the police officers involved and confident they would soon locate the individual caught on camera. However, some two weeks later we were surprised to learn a male had been cautioned in respect of all three traps. The police cautioning guidelines clearly suggested, to us at least, that a range of aggravating factors should have resulted in this matter proceeding to court. We are writing to the police to establish the decision making process in this case. Whatever the reasons that led to this decision, the clear issue that we must keep sight of is the continued targeting of raptors in our uplands and dreadful incidents like this. The breeding status of the hen harrier in England is critical. Despite huge areas of suitable habitat in North Yorkshire alone, this species last bred successfully in the county way back in 2007. This is not acceptable.

In a wider context, Defra published its Hen Harrier Action Plan earlier this year proposing a series of measures aimed at turning around the bird’s breeding fortunes in England. The announcement of the action plan was well received by the shooting organisations (see here and here). However, incidents like this one, give little faith that the industry can influence the shooting estates on the ground in stopping illegal persecution, the single biggest limiting factor behind the hen harrier’s demise in England. A video that emerged earlier this spring showing an armed individual sat in full camouflage on a Peak District grouse moor with a hen harrier decoy close by casts yet further doubts whether there are any serious intentions to end the persecution of raptors in our uplands. If hen harriers are to start to breed again on privately owned driven grouse moors, then the shooting industry cannot allow unlawful practice to continue. There has to be a zero tolerance of these types of incidents. After endorsing the Hen Harrier Action Plan, is there an appetite or ability to stop the persecution on the ground?  The blatant setting of three pole traps in the middle of a grouse moor really drives that issue home.

A compilation of video footage relating to this investigation can be viewed below.

Case Update

The decision to caution for such a serious wildlife crime offence provoked widespread condemnation of the decision.  Following an internal review, on the 6 July 2016 Acting Chief Constable Amanda Oliver issued a statement on behalf of North Yorkshire Police.

'You wrote to us recently to complain about our decision to caution a man, after he admitted an offence contrary to section 5(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. North Yorkshire Police has now completed a review of this investigation. This involved looking again at the evidence and the decision, using the Ministry of Justice Guidelines on Adult Cautions, the Adult Gravity Factor Matrix, and the latest Director of Public Prosecutions Guidance on Charging. Specialist advice was also sought from the Crown Prosecution Service. Our review found that we had not used the correct cautioning guidelines when dealing with this case. Police officers have a level of discretion in deciding how to deal with a case, based on the specific circumstances of the incident. However, the review concluded that if the correct guidelines had been used, it is likely that the man would have been charged, rather than cautioned.

It is important to remember that a police caution is not a “let off”. A person who has been cautioned has a criminal record, and there can be very serious consequences as a result.  Depending on the circumstances, they may lose their job and income, and there may also be implications for the person’s future employment. A decision was also made to revoke this man’s firearms licence as a result of his involvement in this offence.As a result of the review, we asked the Crown Prosecution Service to consider whether further action should be taken on this case, and provided them with other details of our activity related to the man involved. After consideration, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that, taking all matters into account, including that a decision had already been made, no further action should be taken. 

I would like to reassure you that the mistake we made on the use of guidelines was isolated to this particular case. Nonetheless, we have taken the matter very seriously, and we have ensured we have done everything we can to avoid mistakes happening in the future. We have amended our policy on how wildlife crimes are dealt with by investigators and decision-makers, and advice from specially-trained officers is now sought in every case. We are also using our position as the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on rural and wildlife crime, to share what we have learned with other police services across the UK.

Thank you for raising this matter with us. On behalf of North Yorkshire Police I would like to apologise for the distress that this matter has caused you, and assure you that we will do our very best to protect our local wildlife, and deliver the police national wildlife action plan here in North Yorkshire and more widely.

Yours sincerely

Amanda Oliver'

This was a very positive reply from the police and there has been an excellent response from the force in relation to subsequent raptor persecution enquiries.

 A forensic twist!

From our original examination of the spring traps, we strongly suspected two of them had caught birds on previous occasions. The police agreed these could be submitted for DNA testing and they were transferred to the Wildlife DNA Unit at the SASA laboratory in Edinburgh where the necessary examination and sample collection could take place.

DNA testing by SASA found raptor DNA on two illegally used spring traps (Guy Shorrock)

The results confirmed the presence of kestrel DNA on one trap, and DNA of a falcon species, most likely merlin, on the other. So it was clear that these traps had been used illegally prior to our involvement. This new evidence was passed to police, and yet again their WCOs, supported by the new Rural Taskforce, set about an investigation to uncover the truth of what had taken place. Clearly we did not know how long the DNA had been on the traps - though in an outdoor environment the presence of heat, water, sunlight, and oxygen can cause DNA to decay fairly quickly. We also didn’t know at what location the spring traps had been previously used. Without an admission to the previous setting of these traps it was not possible to bring action against any individual. So whilst providing yet more disturbing insights into the uplands of North Yorkshire, in this case the DNA evidence did not allow us to hold anyone accountable.