A recent graphic case of a red kite killed by a pole trap unfortunately shows the barbaric methods still being deployed to kill birds of prey on shooting estates in quiet parts of our countryside.

There are many ways to target and kill birds of prey (raptors). In a previous blog I mentioned some of the new technology being used by the raptor killers. One of the most unpleasant ‘traditional’ methods is the use of metal spring traps illegally placed in the open. These devices should only be used under cover to target certain small mammals.

There are generally two methods. One is to set the spring trap on the ground either with a bait, such as a rabbit carcass to draw a raptor to the area, or on a nest – as illustrated by the horrific trapping of a hen harrier last year. The other is to place the device on an elevated post where birds of prey are likely to perch. This is commonly referred to as a pole trap, and these have been found most frequently around pheasant release pens where birds of prey are attracted to the artificial superabundance of food.

Pole traps were banned outright in 1904, but sadly a few cases continue to come to light. These devices cause horrific injuries and suffering for any bird caught, often leading to a slow, lingering death. A few years ago, I had the sorry task of taking a pole trapped tawny owl, which was in a terrible state, to a local vet to be euthanised. RSPB Investigations has used covert surveillance on several occasions to catch people using these devices. Invariably, court fines have been fairly limited, and the fear of adverse publicly is probably far more of a deterrent than the court outcome.

On Saturday 15 August this year a member of the public was out for a country walk and got slightly lost on an estate to the south east of Newbury in Berkshire. They came across a pheasant release pen and the shocking site of a dead red kite hanging upside down in a spring trap attached to the pen fence.

The dreadful sight of a red kite hanging dead in a pole trap - a device illegal for over 100 years.

What happened next

Unsure of quite what they had found or exactly what had happened, they took some photographs and phoned the estate. A short while later a man, giving his name as that of the estate gamekeeper, called back. He was abusive over the phone, questioning what they were doing at the location, and asking that no photographs be sent to the estate. The witness was left feeling shaken. 

The incident was reported to the RSPB on the Monday and I contacted the Thames Valley Police. Encouragingly, the estate had already reported the matter direct to the police on the Saturday and the gamekeeper had been sent to recover the spring trap and the dead kite. He suggested to the police that it was a set up, claiming the spring trap would not fit on the post next to where the dead kite was hanging.

The forensic examination

You need to keep an open mind with all cases. However, having spoken to the finder, they seemed entirely genuine and the chances of somebody orchestrating this elaborate set up and then another lost member of the public finding it purely by chance seemed unlikely. The photographs also showed the red kite had several damaged primary feathers - consistent with the bird hanging upside down and no doubt frantically flapping its wings against the pen fence.

The post mortem examination revealed the bruising at the hock joint due to the pole trap. Fiona Howie (SRUC)

Thanks to the actions of the estate, the police were able to recover the spring trap and the body of the red kite. This was set for a post-mortem examination, carried out by Fiona Howie, a pathologist at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College), who has unfortunately had a busy year examining illegally killed raptors. The PM report was absolutely clear that the damage to the wing feathers and injuries to the head and legs, plus the state of the bird's lungs, was consistent with the bird dying while suspended upside down. It had been pole-trapped and, no doubt, suffered considerably.

On 16 September I visited the location with Wildlife Crime Officer PC Sean Morris. I took a spring trap with us and had no problem positioning it on the post next to where the red kite was found.

WCO PC Sean Morris of the Thames Valley Police on a site visit with RSPB Investigations. Guy Shorrock (RSPB)

The gamekeeper was later interviewed by the police but denied any involvement, maintaining that the matter was a set-up. Despite the strong circumstantial evidence, this incident once again highlights the problem of getting such cases to court. It also shows the value of covert surveillance evidence gathered by the RSPB and others, and why such evidence is so unpopular with the raptor killers and those who represent them. There are currently three ongoing investigations in England into raptor crime based on RSPB covert surveillance footage.

By way of some consolation, along with the very positive response from the WCO investigating the incident, the actions of the estate in this particular case were far more encouraging than the response more typically received. Hopefully, this is an indication there will be no further incidents.

Looking forward

The RSPB recently announced its review of game bird shooting. In addition to well publicised problems with driven grouse shooting, it is clear there are increasing concerns re the negative environmental impacts associated with the annual release of 57 million or more non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges into the countryside. Following a legal challenge from Wild Justice Defra has recently announced that it will license the release of these birds in some areas to control ecological damage to wildlife sites.

With the shooting industry under increasing scrutiny, incidents like the brutal killing of this red kite ultimately do them no favours.