Unfortunately, 2019 has seen more problems with the illegal use of rail traps posing a risk to birds and other non-target animals. The RSPB is increasingly concerned about the lack of consistent enforcement action in relation to these reports.

 Last year I wrote a couple of blogs here and here about our increasing concerns over the use of rail traps. These relate to two areas. Firstly, when rail traps are considered correctly set and result in the bycatch of species like ring ouzels (though I have significant doubts that these traps are actually compliant with the law). Secondly, the more obvious illegal use through professional neglect by not setting or maintaining the traps in a manner which minimises risks to non-target wildlife.

 On 27 May this year we received a report, and graphic photograph, of a young tawny killed in a rail trap on the Gunnerside estate in North Yorkshire, which is managed for driven grouse shooting. There was absolutely no restriction at one end of the mesh tunnel, and a totally inadequate attempt at the other end. Tawny owl chicks are naturally inquisitive at this age and it is normal for them to walk around on the ground before climbing back up to the safety of their nest. This bird walked into the mesh tunnel, probably thinking it was a nook which it could take shelter in.


Juvenile tawny owl killed in an illegally operated rail trap - an obvious failure to restrict access at both ends of the mesh cover (Tom Grose RSPB)

 This was understandably shocking for the person who found it, and their email to us ended with the words ‘May the weight of the law descend on who whoever did this

North Yorkshire Police were contacted, provided their usual prompt response, and with the help of my colleague Tom Grose, the body of the tawny owl was recovered by a WCO. The nearby corpses of dead rats with apparent crush injuries clearly suggested the trap was being visited and repeatedly reset, despite the fact it was blatantly illegal. My colleague mentioned a very similar case last year had been dealt with by way of caution (this was the Northumberland merlin in the linked blog above).

 I had information about other incidents which had taken place on this estate which could have a bearing on what action the police might take. In 2009, a ring ouzel was killed in a rail trap, though we don’t know if this was reported to the police at the time. And more recently in 2016 a dead kestrel was found dead in a spring trap. This trap may, or may not, have been set properly at the outset, but clearly was not checked regularly enough and had become exposed, leading to the death of the kestrel. Other badly placed spring traps in the same area suggested routine neglect. North Yorkshire Police chose to deal with this matter with words of advice, as they weren’t sufficiently confident the evidence was strong enough for further action.


A ring ouzel and a kestrel - previous victims of improperly set or managed spring traps on this estate (supplied to RSPB)

 In relation to the tawny owl, I left voicemails and emailed the officer to let him know I had some background information, but received no reply. The next I heard, the matter had again been dealt with by ‘words of advice’. I have written asking for clarification about the decision-making process, and why a caution or prosecution was not considered. When you look at the recent prosecution in North Yorkshire for a badger killed in an unchecked snare, in terms of professional neglect, it is difficult to see much difference between this and the killing of the tawny owl. Why did one result in a court appearance and a fine, and the other just words of advice?

 This young owl is the latest in a string of reports of illegally set rail traps which have come to light in 2019. In January, numerous rail traps, illegally set, were found on a grouse moor in South Yorkshire. This was reported to the South Yorkshire Police, but we have been unable to get any update on what enforcement action, if any, has been taken.

 Between January and March, a number of these were found on grouse moors in the North York Moors National Park. Two of my colleagues assisted a WCO to visit and recover some of these. However, again several months on, we are still waiting to hear whether any enforcement action has been taken.

 In March, my colleagues found an unrestricted trap on a grouse moor in Bowland on the Whitewell Estate which was reported to the police. Fortunately, a WCO Police Sergeant was meeting RSPB staff in the area on other matters and promptly attended the incident. He undertook a comprehensive decision-making process and the incident was allocated to an officer to deal with. Unfortunately, we have not got to the bottom of what has been done with some feedback suggesting the trap was not illegal. We await clarification as to why they believe this to be the case.

 RSPB Investigations recording an illegally operated rail trap in Bowland, Lancashire (Howard Jones RSPB)

This latest incident in North Yorkshire is particularly frustrating. The county’s appalling record for raptor persecution is well known. In recent years we have been greatly encouraged by the work of WCOs and the Rural Taskforce. The partnership Operation Owl initiative in early 2018, focussing on awareness-raising and community engagement, was well received. This is currently being expanded into a national operation led by Superintendent Nick Lyall chair of the Raptor Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) - see the recently launched website.

 However, we firmly believe that more consistent enforcement action is needed to offer a greater deterrent, improve accountability, and ensure estates carry out lawful predator control and habitat management. The weight of the law in response to reports of any crime must be considered on a case-by-case basis. However, in these cases I struggle to see what weight is carried by words of advice, or it would appear, no enforcement action at all. We will be raising our concerns with the RPPDG and the NWCU and hope that this will help lead to a far more consistent approach and less unnecessary deaths like this tawny owl.

A short video highlighting our concerns can be seen here