Let’s ask ourselves a question: who – or what – uses hundreds of thousands of traps to kill millions of native mammals and birds? Mammals like foxes, stoats, Mountain Hares, and birds like Carrion Crows, Jays, and, it turns out – and who knows how often this has happened in the past – Little Owls.
That would be the shooting industry of course. The same shooting industry that releases over 50 million non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges every year causing an ‘ecological assault’ and providing vast amounts of food to the very wildlife they spend all year trapping and snaring! The same shooting industry that puts holes into more than half a million Red Grouse every year while eradicating birds of prey and hares from upland estates. The same shooting industry, incidentally, which our largest bird charity seems happy to work with…you know, because their charter from almost 120 years ago says that they should (see – RSPB still not opposed to shooting birds).
Little Owls were introduced to the UK back in the latter part of the 19th century from Europe (a great potted history can be found at the UK Little Owl Project) and breed across England and Wales, just about reaching Scotland in the north. According to the British Trust for Ornithology populations are in decline, both here in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, “making studies of breeding ecology and survival all the more important“. Surveys indicate that the Little Owl declined by 65% over a 25 year period, a decline that has accelerated since 2002. It’s current UK population size is an estimated 5,700 breeding pairs. The Little Owl has declined in mainland Europe and is listed as a Species of European Conservation Concern.
For those who read this and aren’t birdwatchers, for an owl these are really tiny birds: about the size of a starling, or 22 cms (8.7 in) tall and weighing about 170 grams. They are diurnal and will often hunt for food by swooping to the ground and running after their prey (which includes small mammals), chasing them into tunnels. Ground-based traps with open entrances which are designed to kill mustelids (see – New ‘protection’ for stoats) would obviously be irresistible to Little Owls if they thought a prey item was inside.
To be absolutely clear, this incident could not have happened if there was no shooting on this estate: there’d have been no box on the ground, no spring trap, and no painful and cruel death (did this bird die of shock, of trauma, or perhaps starve to death during a crucial part of the breeding season when there may have been dependent chicks nearby?).
It seems inconceivable that ‘accidents’ like this haven’t happened more regularly. We’ll never know of course because few of us are looking into traps, and even fewer of us are doing so before gamekeepers empty those traps and dispose of evidence. The thanks of all of us should go then to the member of the public who discovered this shocking example of gamekeeping’s grim toll on our wildlife and recorded what they saw, and kudos to the National Anti Snaring Campaign who reported it on Facebook.
National Anti Snaring Campaign [NASC] were contacted in Dec. 2020 from a man wishing to inform us that on May 29 this year he found a Little Owl caught in a Fenn Trap on the Sandringham Royal Estate next to Flitcham Barns, Flitcham, which lies just east of Sandringham.
He considered reporting to police but advised by his employer that it would cause a lot of upset, as his employer rents from the Sandringham Royal Estate.
On 8th Dec 2020, NASC investigators visited the Sandringham Estate and found dozens of similar Fenn Traps at ground level that risk stoat capture.
The Fenn Trap was removed from the Spring Traps Approval Order for stoat capture in April 2020 after the government agreed to implement the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards.
The organisation that controls shooting in the UK, (BASC) British Association for Shooting and Conservation have advised removing all Fenn traps at ground level that risk stoat capture, although they remain legal if stoats can be excluded.
While investigating the owl’s death we visited the bird hide that lies 100 metres from Flitcham Barns. This is owned by the Royal Estate but run for public access by the Nar Valley Ornithological Society Tel: 01760 724092.
Here we were told by a man who maintains the hide that four little owls live in a tree close by. He also relayed an anecdote of how a bird watcher once turned around to find a policeman at the hide door. He said: “Would you mind if the Queen comes in to have a look?” A minute later, the Queen duly entered and viewed birds from the hide, much to his amazement.
Simon Wild of the National Anti Snaring Campaign said: “It is clear the Queen is interested in wild birds, and I think she would be horrified that a Little Owl was accidentally killed in one of her traps. All Fenn traps on ground level should have been removed by law in April if the UK is to meet its obligations under the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards, and we have reported the Queen’s traps to Norfolk police Ref: 122 11/12/2020‘National Anti Snaring Campiagn, Facebook, 14 Dec 2020