Written by Howard Jones, Assistant Investigations Officer

When I used to think of the year 2014 as a child it sounded like a date that was so far into the future that it was simply beyond all comprehension. It was a date straight out of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ where robots would serve us dinner and cars would drive us. Yet having been part of the Investigations team for nearly two years now, I can only say that some facets of our country are still trapped in a bygone Victorian era and firmly stuck in the Dark Ages.

In June 2013, my colleagues received a report from the League Against Cruel Sports of a potential pole trap inside a plantation on the Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire. When my colleagues arrived the following day, their worst fears were realised. It was a pole trap. A device banned since 1904, three years after the fall of Queen Victoria because of its indiscriminate way of catching animals and being synonymous with catching birds of prey.

For those not aware, a pole trap is a device that involves placing a spring trap (basically an extremely powerful mouse trap) on an elevated platform such as post or a pole. Spring traps can be operated legally to target mustelids such as stoats and weasels but only when placed under a cover so that non target animals, such as protected mammals and birds, avoid being caught. Unfortunately, pole traps are still used as a method of targeting birds of prey, which like to perch and have a vantage position when hunting. They are usually discovered on land managed for game bird shooting where some people have tried to reduce potential predation by birds of prey and owls. Sparrowhawks, goshawks and tawny owls are typical intended victims, though a wide range of birds species landing on such a trap are vulnerable to being caught. Birds caught in such traps are usually despatched by the trap operator or die as a result of their horrific injuries.

This particular pole trap was disabled by my colleagues and a covert camera was installed to monitor who was responsible for it. A few days later, the culprit arrived on camera. See the video here.

The video shows a 25 year old male called Ryan Waite who is a gamekeeper on the Swinton Estate, situated within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Waite casually re-sets the spring trap placing it back on top of the tree stump. Following this footage, a search warrant was executed by North Yorkshire Police assisted by RSPB. When we arrived at the pole trap site with the police, we found the trap had been removed. It later emerged on our camera footage that Waite had removed the trap. The same trap was found on his premises later during the search. Waite admitted in police interview that he had set the pole trap though he claimed the device was set to target squirrels and not birds of prey.

Most professional predator controllers (gamekeepers) worth their salt will tell you that a pole trap is not used for squirrels. There is no need to take the risk to control a squirrel illegally when there are numerous legal alternatives to controlling squirrels that are far more effective than a pole trap. There was no mention of squirrels in the work diary of Waite, which documented the animals killed during his predator control work on the estate. The area within the plantation that the pole trap was set in would be an ideal flyway for a raptor. In the event, although Waite subsequently pleaded guilty to setting the trap, the court were unable to determine what he had set if for other than that he had been reckless in doing so.

It is hard to contemplate why a 25 year old male with his whole career in front of him would even take the risk to set a pole trap. Most people in their right mind would not dream of breaking the law. The stakes are far too high. If you break the law, then you can expect to face huge consequences including the possibility of losing your job and potentially risking your whole career. Yet the financial incentives to increase game bird numbers on shooting estates for clients by whatever means possible (including raptor persecution) seemingly makes the risk worthwhile for some. Since 1990, over a hundred gamekeepers have run the same gauntlet, appearing in court for raptor persecution offences.

It is broken system that dictates that a person feels they can commit a crime using a device banned for over a century and accept the risks that he undertakes. We come across far too many prosecutions where financial penalties incurred such as fines and legal costs seem more like an inconvenience rather than a sentence. Furthermore, convicted gamekeepers usually either keep their jobs or are re-employed elsewhere in the shooting industry. It is the convenient relationship where gamekeepers take the fall in court but are looked after by their employers behind the scenes. The deterrents to stop people committing raptor persecution are not in place at the moment either through the courts or within the shooting industry. This is the major problem faced in tackling this type of crime. We still come across far too many incidents of poisoning, trapping and shooting of birds of prey.

One way that could pay dividends and might lead to a real reduction in these crimes is if criminal liability for the actions of their gamekeepers was extended to cover their managers and employers. An offence of “vicarious liability” was introduced in Scotland in January 2012. This can make landowners culpable for the actions of their gamekeepers if they commit raptor persecution crimes unless they can show they have taken steps to prevent it from happening. It’s still early days. There are some encouraging early signs with a reduction in recorded poisoning incidents in Scotland in 2012 compared to previous years, though we need to see if this is sustained over the years ahead. We need the Westminster Government to take raptor persecution as seriously as the Scots have and introduce vicarious liability south of the border. That step, combined with some robust sentencing by magistrates and employers taking a stronger line with their employees following conviction, could go a long way towards stamping out this barbaric practice. But as long as it continues, the shooting industry will continue to carry the raptor persecution millstone around its neck.