Gamekeeping’s war on wildlife

The Moorland Monitors are a grassroots community network working to protect precious wildlife and habitat on the grouse shooting moors of the Peak District and beyond. On the 13th March they posted images on their Facebook page which showed two tunnel traps designed to catch and kill Stoats. The photos caused an immediate reaction across social media, with questions being asked whether traps like these are legal and why weren’t the Peak District National Park authorities doing something about them.

These are reasonable questions, and – if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to read the whole article – in brief yes they are legal (which doesn’t make them ethically or morally right to use, of course), and because they’re legal the authorities have no power to do anything about them except perhaps check that they’re being used properly. Besides which, much of the land that makes up our so-called ‘national parks’ is privately owned (we’ve already covered that in a post on shooting in national parks) which makes effective monitoring extremely difficult – and anyway the Park (disingenuously but clearly) states on their website thatWe expect that any use of [traps] within the Peak District National Park is strictly in line with current legislation and industry best practice guidance. The Peak District National Park Authority does not enforce the use of predator control measures, nor has a remit to do so.”


Let’s look at the two photographs that the Moorland Monitors posted and which we’ve reproduced here with their permission.

The first photograph (and the large version in the header takes in a hare leg used as bait) shows something called a Tully trap. It’s been designed specifically to catch stoats, and the manufacturers proudly say it’s a so-called ‘improvement’ on the spring traps used in the past. The website promoting these abominable things says that the Tully Trap has been passed by the government’s very own Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA, the government body which works to “to safeguard animal and plant health for the benefit of people, the environment and the economy”) as a run through stoat trap meeting the current agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS).

The second photograph the Moorland Monitors posted shows a DoC trap. The DoC family of traps are, apparently, an “innovative humane kill spring trap developed by the Department of Conservation in New Zealand“. Three models of DoC trap have been approved for use in England to catch grey squirrels, rats, stoats and weasels under the Spring Traps Approval Order 2007. This says that the traps must “be set in the tunnel provided by the manufacturer of the trap for use in the UK”. This is because – to quote – “tunnel design contributes significantly to its humaneness, selectivity and safety“.

Going strictly by the guidelines then, both these traps appear have been set correctly.

Those of us that don’t routinely kill animals in traps will likely find the placement of literally hundreds of thousands of hidden traps to legally kill native wildlife highly controversial despite claims about how efficient they are. We will likely find words like ‘humaneness” alongside a term like “kill spring trap” oxymoronic. How can a giant spring slamming down on the back or the neck of a wild animal – a wild animal killed simply so that people can sell as many birds as living targets to so-called ‘sportsmen’ as possible – ever be described as ‘humane’?

How? Because the concept of humane killing ignores any aspect of ‘right to life’ – especially when it comes to shooting interests and protecting Red Grouse and pheasants/partridges from so-called ‘vermin’. What matters is pain and suffering, and these traps – when they’re working as they should – are designed to kill swiftly. Yes, from the operator’s point of view, these traps have been designed with animal welfare at the fore! According to the government’s own page on ‘Humane Trapping Standards‘, “AIHTS seeks to improve the welfare of fur-bearing animals trapped for their pelts as well as for conservation and pest control purposes [the latter the key three words for the shooting industry]…creating an internationally recognised benchmark for trap welfare…and shares the British public’s high regard for animal welfare.”

That’s right, our government, by allowing the shooting industry and its hired hands to distribute unknown numbers of traps to kill unknown numbers of wild animals (there is no legal requirement to collect and/or submit data on the enormous numbers of ‘vermin/pests’ that gamekeepers kill) claims that it “shares the British public’s high regard for animal welfare“.

It certainly doesn’t share mine, and if you’re reading this it probably doesn’t share yours either, but wild animals exist in something of a welfare limbo – they can be trapped, snared, or battered with a baseball bat, their lives can be taken to protect economic interests like shooting, they can be demonised and destroyed, as long as they don’t suffer for too long. That, according to the AIHTS guidelines on stoats, means no more than 45 seconds – which we’d contest might seem like a lifetime to an animal in pain and fear. And the government additionally seems entirely happy that welfare considerations should be left to gamekeepers, a group of bad apples not noted for animal welfare and who are routinely found responsible for wildlife crime and raptor persecution.


The law is changing

From April 1st this year the updated ‘welfare’ criteria that is seeing an upturn in the use of ‘improved’ Tully traps comes into force. It outlaws – for the trapping of Stoats anyway – the Fenn Mk 4 and Mk 6 traps (and copycat designs) and all BMI Magnum traps. Which, take note, essentially means that – according to a website maintained by industry lobbyists themselves – around 90% or more of all traps currently used as tunnel traps in the UK are recognised as being inhumane.

It’s tempting to say that perhaps we should recognise that the government is responding to its in-house welfare concerns by adopting these new standards, but the likelihood is that they’re really responding to a huge amount of public pressure and finally being forced into recognising how bloody cruel the existing spring and tunnel traps really are – traps that have been routinely praised by gamekeepers and the shooting industry and which were ‘legal’ for decade after decade after decade.

And note that Fenn traps themselves – which have now been recognised as being inhumane – aren’t actually being banned entirely. It will remain legal to use them to catch other target species for which they are currently approved (e.g. weasels, rats, grey squirrels), “even though they have not undergone humaneness testing for those species (because of cost constraints”). Humane testing losing out to cost constraints perhaps shows more about the government’s claim to share “the British public’s high regard for animal welfare” than anything else. And how anyone is supposed to know whether the old inhumane traps are still being used to trap stoats illegally isn’t detailed, but as gamekeepers don’t typically like the public to know where these traps are – or question how they use them – they presumably won’t be providing information signs…

How do the lobbyists for the shooting industry feel about this change incidentally? The GWCT says that, “Morally, a commitment to raise humaneness standards in wildlife management is unarguable, provided it doesn’t render management ineffectual or prohibitively expensive.” In other words, they’re onside provided the kill number doesn’t go down or gamekeepers don’t find the cost of new traps prohibitive.

Sure, let’s leave welfare considerations to gamekeepers and the shooting industry because they really do care about our wildlife…


What can we do?

Given that breaking the spines of wild animals by the shooting industry is still legal, what can we do?

Unfortunately (and here comes a legal disclaimer because it will be the one thing a gamekeeper reading this will pick up on if we don’t mention it) what we can’t do is touch the traps. The law says that they are private property and to steal or deliberately interfere with or break any trap, snare or cage is a criminal offence. Smashing them, filling them with foam, or even removing them is illegal. And it’s virtually pointless reporting them to the national parks because they will be – as we said before – set on private land, and they have neither the resources nor the inclination to check up on legal usage anyway.

But there are of course things that we can do. We can join organisations like Moorland Monitors. We can get involved: get out into the field, find these things, photograph the dead wild animals in them, and get those images out across social media and the press. As the Moorland Monitors themselves put it, “simply showing the truth of what happens to animals can be so effective“. We can think about what ‘legal’ means and ask what it is that laws like this are there to protect – in this case the interests of the shooting industry and their ruthless destruction of wildlife so that they can sell other wildlife as living targets to shooters.

We can also think about how we use language and what values certain words reflect. We can ask ourselves what ‘animal welfare’ really means, and whether our politicians really do share the British public’s high regard for animal welfare: if they don’t we can ask to see them, mail them, petition them, or try to vote them out unless they change the law to ban traps, cages, and snares entirely.

We can change things. These so-called ‘improved’ welfare standards prove that. The work that Wild Justice and others are doing in court on the general licence and pheasant releases proves that. The work that Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors is doing to halt grouse shooting in Yorkshire proves that. The dropping of pledges to repeal the Hunting Act from the Conservative Party’s manifesto proves that. The fury that erupts on social media when a QC smashes a fox with a baseball bat proves that. The wonderful Moorland Monitors, and the Hunt Investigations Team, and the Hunt Saboteurs and every other wonderful, truly humane individual in the country proves that.

Yes, there is a long way to go, but when we work together, speak as one, take it upon ourselves to act, and ask the right questions, we can make changes. Changes that will one day no longer see a trap that snaps the bones of a wild animal described as ‘humane’ or legal, and a government that supports such a trap no longer believing that it “shares the British public’s high regard for animal welfare“.