New ‘protection’ for stoats?

The English language is, we’re told, fluid and ever-changing. It’s why ‘literally’ doesn’t literally mean ‘literally’ anymore. Why ‘willy-nilly’ now doesn’t mean doing something whether we want to or not. Why ‘animal welfare’ now apparently seems to mean ‘killing a wild animal a little more quickly than before but still killing it for absolutely no good reason other than it’s what the shooting industry wants‘ (see also ‘conservation’ meaning ‘killing things for no good reason other than it’s what the shooting industry wants‘, ‘cull’ meaning ‘killing things for no good reason other than it’s what the shooting and agriculture industry wants‘ and numerous other examples).

We mention this because as of today, stoats here in the UK have gained a small (very small) measure of protection for the first time (Ireland gave stoats legal protection under their Wildlife Act 1976 / 2000). That should be good news for Britain’s stoats because they are killed in massive numbers by gamekeepers (no-one knows how many because no-one is required to keep a tally, but more of that later…).

But it’s not that simple (when it comes to our wildlife it rarely is)…

The shooting industry still wants to kill stoats of course. It used to do so by snapping bits of them in spring (Fenn) traps, but stoats are now covered by animal welfare legislation which says that killing stoats in Fenn traps is illegal because they take too long to die. What to do, what to do? You can almost see the thinking from here: learn to live with stoats and the loss of a few eggs and chicks (not a bloody chance), or – lightbulb moment – change the way we kill stoats (and tell the public we’re doing it to save Curlews)! Triples all round, lads…

Tully Trap copyright Moorland Monitors

We’ve written about this before, but essentially ‘protection’ in the case of stoats means out go the barbaric spring traps that snapped the animal’s neck or back, and in comes the new, updated, ‘kinder’ Tully and DOC traps that – er, snaps the animal’s neck or back. But – and here’s the big change – it does it a little more quickly. No longer will stoats be allowed to writhe in agony for minutes on end, under the new, ‘give us a hug’ trap they’ll only be writhing for a maximum of forty-five seconds. That’s ‘protection’ shooting industry style, and we’ll bet the stoats are delighted. Every animal wants to die painfully that bit more quickly, don’t they…you know, assuming that they wouldn’t prefer to live of course.


Uh-oh, here comes a new General Licence

Now, when I was growing up, ‘protection’ meant something like ‘preventing harm‘. But the shooting industry won’t be having any of that lefty-liberal bunny-hugging nonsense when it comes to ‘protecting stoats’ though…

No, instead what the shooting industry has been handed is more lightweight legislation on how to kill them. Yes, it’s yet another of those electronic not-really-there, so-light-touch-you-can’t-feel-it pieces of unenforceable, open to interpretation (‘but don’t worry we won’t be checking anyway’) pieces of legislation: a general licence. This time it’s GL38.

GL38 is allegedly designed – language fluidity alert – to ‘conserve wild birds‘. The licence says that means Curlews and other vulnerable shorebirds, in practice though it means conserving the millions of ecologically-destructive and non-native pheasants and partridges (which are here redefined as ‘wild birds’) and Red Grouse which are farmed in unnaturally high numbers on our uplands.

Yes, they’re raised every year by the shooting industry, but that’ll be fine lads, you carry on. (Oh, and if you’re concerned about stoats getting your so-called ‘wild birds’ while they’re still caged – and we’re having a real problem seeing how those are ‘wild’ – have a gander at GL39 which is a licence to kill stoats ‘to prevent serious damage to livestock‘. Wild birds and livestock, depending on how old they are. Brilliant. Natural England’s got your backs, lads, you can be sure of that…)


Protecting shooting, not stoats

GL38 offers naff all protection to stoats. It does define which of the new, brushed-with-fairy-dust traps can be used, but of course GL38 is very much anti-stoat and very much pro-shoot.

Let’s start with who can – to quote – ‘get a general licence to trap stoats‘? That would be a ‘landowner, occupier or authorised person‘. Which sounds an awful lot like ‘shooting estate owner, shooting estate manager/shooting tenant, and anyone (a gamekeeper for example) a shooting estate authorises on their behalf‘.

And what sort of rigorous test might these pillars of society need to take to get a General Licence to kill native wildlife? Don’t be daft. As far as Natural England – who issues these licences and is “the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide” – is concerned, there’s no need to do anything arduous whatsoever to get a licence to kill stoats (unless ‘nodding when asked that you’ve read the GL’ is considered arduous). As they state quite clearly: “Users do not need to register to use this licence” – in fact they go on to say that “You do not need to apply for this general licence but you must comply with its terms and conditions.”

How’s that for protection…

Surely, though, there must be more to GL38 than allowing practically anyone who wants to kill stoats to do so, or why even issue the damn thing?

How about keeping data on the numbers of stoats killed? No, no need for that: users are advised to keep a record but it’s not mandatory and no-one in the industry or government seems to want to know anyway (and they most certainly don’t want us to know how many wild animals they’re killing to ‘protect’ birds for the gun for obvious reasons).

Okay, how about making sure these new traps are ‘better’ then the Fenn traps they replace, as the industry would have us believe? They will be keeping welfare records, right? Wrong. Users do not need to submit records to Natural England. They don’t need to report whether the traps are proving humane or effective. They don’t even need to log to what extent they are catching ‘non-target species’. They just have to check them, chuck away any dead bodies they find, and carry on. Hurrah for the General Licence…

Natural England will be checking that users aren’t killing native wildlife ‘willy-nilly’, though, won’t they? They’ve got that one covered. GL38 says that “any person using this licence must be able to show, if asked by an officer of Natural England or the Police what wild bird*(s) any action under this licence is protecting“. Which sounds like some sort of check on gamekeepers, until you remember of course that ‘wild’ no longer means ‘wild’ but includes artificially-reared ‘game birds’ too. Isn’t the English language wonderful…


Natural England?

We could go on, but let’s cut to the chase. Whatever new ‘protection’ for stoats there may be, it’s delivery is being handed straight over to the very people who want to kill them. Huge numbers of stoat traps will be used in remote areas on shooting estates and grouse moors where checks by anyone in authority (and who might actually care about animal welfare) are virtually non-existent. While we’re in lockdown gamekeepers will still be out killing wildlife and there will be even fewer volunteers to monitor whether the traps are being used inhumanely or inappropriately or whether the older style Fenn traps are still being used illegally. We won’t know whether or not the licence condition that states that stoats can only be killed to ‘protect’ ‘game birds when they are vulnerable to stoat predation‘ – which should mean it isn’t applicable outside of the nesting season – is being adhered to. And none of us will have a clue just how many stoats are being killed SOLELY so that birds can be shot for fun later in the year.

No, stoats are no more protected today than they were last week. And the shameful thing is that the very body whose mission is to conserve Nature is the same body that is making it so easy for the shooting industry to kill them. Natural England? Now we’re really talking about the fluidity of language and how words don’t mean what they used to…


  • With thanks to Moorland Monitors for suggestions and comments on a draft of this post
  • Header image of a stoat copyright Margaret Holland



EDIT: We spend quite a lot of time (ie hours) researching and rewriting these posts to get them just-so. From now on, though, we might just adopt the deliciously concise style of conservationist Derek Gow: he summed up this whole charade in two perfectly-chosen words on Twitter this afternoon – ‘invidious bollocks‘. Think of the time we could have saved …