The murky world of wildlife trapping

We spent an eye-opening morning with a moorland monitor

12th August 2019

The fog on the drive from East Yorkshire to the Peak District is some of the densest I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this is normal for 5am but I wouldn’t know, I’m never up this early.

Chief reporter Ethan Shone is driving and we’re on our way to meet Jenny, a Moorland Monitor.

We arrive at the pre-arranged spot a few minutes early and have time to check our recording equipment before she arrives. Though everything we’re about to do is legal, we’re trying to be clandestine — it’s best not to draw too much attention to ourselves, we’re told.

We meet Jenny at 6.45am in a car park in a popular part of the Dark Peak, the northern part of the Peak District.

We’re here to spend a morning seeing what’s caught in gamekeepers’ wildlife traps — the early start is in order to beat them to it.

Though the moorland in this part of Britain is privately owned, it’s also National Park land, which means the public has a right to access it most days of the year. The days it’s not available, it’s being used for grouse shooting.

Sections of the moor are managed by upland farmers who raise sheep on fields adjacent to the grouse shooting areas

Grouse shooting is a controversial sport for a whole host of reasons. Many people find raising grouse to shoot for sport unethical and distasteful. Some people take issue with taxpayers’ money subsidising private land and shotgun licences at a time of austerity, to make it cheaper for a small number of, usually very wealthy, people to have fun.

On top of this, given that, on “driven” shoots, people are employed to shoo the birds into the air and load shooters’ shotguns, making it absolutely idiot-proof, some people simply question whether there’s any sport in it at all.

Others still have no problem with grouse shooting per se, but take issue with the way moorland is managed. Gamekeepers burn sections of moorland in “controlled burns” as part of the management process. Wildlife campaigners say these burns are solely to encourage new shoots for the grouse to feed on and serve no other purpose. While there’s no conclusive evidence, they also say these burns contribute to both wildfires and flooding, something shooting groups strongly deny.

Legal predator control is a vitally important element of game management as it leads to good conservation of wildlife and habitats

Gamekeepers describe what they do as “conservation”, though wildlife groups say this is disingenuous, especially when it comes to trapping.

Trapping wildlife can be legal and is part of a long-established process which gamekeepers say is vital to controlling the moorland. Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moors in England says controlling the number of foxes, carrion crows, stoats and weasels “benefits not just grouse, but many other species of threatened ground-nesting birds sharing the unique habitat”. 

She tells The Overtake: “Legal predator control is a vitally important element of game management as it leads to good conservation of wildlife and habitats as long as it does not threaten the conservation status of predators. 

“Many of the prey species, such as nesting birds, are of conservation concern whereas many of the predators in question are thriving.”

What we’re doing here today with Jenny, is seeing whether gamekeepers are sticking to the rules and targetting only species they’re allowed to trap.

Jenny visits different areas of moorland a few times a week

Though I know from experience, when you go out with a camera or a recording device you don’t always capture what you want, Jenny seems pretty confident our trip won’t be wasted.

The main thing we’re looking for is birds of prey, also known as raptor birds, like hen harriers, northern goshawks and peregrine falcons.

They’re notable for their absence on the Dark Peak — which many campaigners and conservationists ascribe to the grouse moors.

There are thousands of traps across the moor. They’re set on the natural corridors that wildlife will take

A report by the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative found efforts to boost bird populations are failing, as research showed only three pairs of peregrine successfully raised chicks, goshawks continue to be absent from the Dark Peak and two out of four hen harrier chicks went missing in 2018.

We only need to walk for a few minutes before we see a trap. It’s remarkably public, on top of a drystone wall and next to a road with regular traffic. It’s a cage about the size of a shoebox, though slightly taller and narrower, with what’s essentially a large mousetrap inside. It’s empty. At each end, a hole has been cut out of the wire to let small animals in.

“This is an example of a legally-set spring trap. There are thousands of these across the moor. They’re set on the natural corridors that wildlife will take.”

Jenny explains the law states there must be a cage around the trap to prevent larger protected animals like badgers and raptor birds being caught, though the law doesn’t prescribe the holes to be a certain size, so it’s left up to the trap-placer to decide how big to make them.

Spring traps like this one are legal

I spent my childhood climbing rocks and picking bilberries on Yorkshire Dales moorland and this is the first time in my memory I’ve ever seen a trap. The fact that it’s so obvious makes me wonder whether I’ve had my eyes closed for 30 years.

Today we’re looking at spring traps, though Jenny indicates that if we’d wanted to see the worst of it, we’d be better off going to the Peak District in spring when snare traps are used to catch pregnant and nursing females to reduce populations ahead of the shooting season.

A snare is essentially a wire noose attached to a stake in the ground or a weight, intended to catch an animal so that it can be shot. There are legal and illegal types — the difference essentially being that legal snares are able to loosen while illegal ones are designed to get tighter and tighter as an animal struggles.

I’m surprised the shooting industry have got away with it for as long as they have

Though they’re intended to catch foxes, they’re indiscriminate, especially when placed low to the ground.

Where animals are caught by the leg, the injuries can be worse than they look. In cases where pet dogs have been caught in them, it’s common for them to need limbs amputating

In fact, charities regularly advise people to keep their eye on their dogs on and near moorland, as they can easily be trapped.

Last spring, a man found his pet dog dead in a snare, which had caught round the animal’s jaw, and there are incidents of people being injured after getting caught in snares.

Spring traps are considered too cruel for the fur trade

Charities such as the RSPCA and RSPB say they will respond to these calls and, though local police should be able to handle these cases, people report a mixture of success with getting officers to attend.

Though it might be unpleasant to watch an animal suffer or struggle, releasing a trapped animal can be a criminal offence, and some gamekeepers use CCTV to monitor for trap tampering, so even if there seems to be nobody around, anyone meddling with a trap that they didn’t set is at risk of prosecution.

Freeing animals that are illegally trapped is not an offence but when it comes to which traps are legal, it’s best to leave it to an expert.

Snares will catch anything, badgers — which they’re not supposed to — or cats and dogs

“What we’ve found is even if the snare has been set legally, the wire can get warped, to the point where its the same as an illegal trap, even if the intention was legal. It’s a bit of a technicality,” says Jenny.

“I mean, snares are barbaric anyway.”

She adds that snares are banned in most European countries, while spring traps have received international condemnation.

“[Spring traps] are considered too cruel for the fur trade. I’m surprised the shooting industry have got away with it for as long as they have.”

Some gamekeepers will use live mammal traps, which are better in theory as trappers can release non-target animals, Jenny explains.

“Snares will catch anything, badgers — which they’re not supposed to — or cats and dogs. They do use [live traps] in the Peak District but not as much. I think it’s because they’re really expensive. Snares cost about 10p each, so they can set hundreds of them.”

It’s kind of a public movement, which is great

Snares and spring traps are not the only things walkers have to contend with.

Last year, the RSPB was alerted to a dead raven with no signs of injury on moorland in the Peak District. When the bird’s body was tested, it was found to have eaten food laced with aldicarb, a poison virulent enough that half a teaspoon can kill a human.

Though poisoning is rare — and illegal —  when it happens, the monitors and charities take it very seriously. Poisoned animals can be eaten by other protected species or pets, and picked up by children.

Moorland monitoring is legal and the Moorland Monitor group say they’re law-abiding — there’s no evidence of anything untoward when we spend time with them.

There’s only a risk of prosecution if a person tampers with traps and a risk of a civil case if someone trespasses (Ordinance Survey maps show clearly which land is publicly accessible) — things Jenny is keen to stress that the group never do. It’s also entirely safe, she adds.

Unlike fox hunt monitoring, which we covered last year, moorland monitoring is generally very non-confrontational. Jenny rarely sees a gamekeeper and usually goes out on to the moor alone.

The group, Moorland Monitors, are only very loosely organised and based around their Facebook page. Many of the 2,000 people who follow the page never meet each other or know anyone else.

The keepers don’t know who is a walker and who is actually monitoring them

For this reason, Jenny finds it hard to pin down the demographics of the group — she says she knows of monitors who range from a 10-year-old girl to a retired man.

She says lots of the people who get in touch with the page to ask for advice or report incidents are complete strangers. “We don’t know everyone who’s out there. It’s kind of a public movement, which is great.

“What we’re hearing is that there’s a huge deterrent effect now, because the keepers don’t know who is a walker and who is actually monitoring them.”

People feel a real sense of ownership of the area because they love it and they want to protect it

Moorland Monitors say their goal is educating the people who are already coming to the moor to walk their dog or for a family day out so they know the signs of illegal trapping.

That’s how Jenny started.

“It was because I loved coming here,” she says. “But because of being here and learning about it, I now use my time to keep an eye on the place and see what’s going on.

“People feel a real sense of ownership of the area because they love it and they want to protect it.”

Burning patches of moorland been criticised for increasing floods and wildfires, though gamekeepers say it helps to prevent them

As we walk, we pass two or three more traps, all empty. 

“What would be useful,” she says, “is if we could find one with an animal dead in it, so you can see the kinds of injuries they sustain. I think when you find an animal that has died either recently or not recently, you just get an idea of the injuries they inflict.”

We climb further on to the moor and take in some quite spectacular scenery. It’s only when Jenny points out that unmanaged moorland would naturally look quite different, with trees and bushes, that I suddenly notice how sparse and desolate the landscape is.

Still, after all this time, it has this effect

We walk alongside a wall and Jenny lifts up a large, flat rock lying adjacent to the wall. As a walker, there would be no way I’d have noticed it was anything other than a rock but underneath is another empty spring trap.

There are more along the wall and we move to the next one.

Jenny lifts up the rock as before but this time lets out a yelp. “Shit.”

There’s a small, still, furry body in the trap, hardly larger than a hamster. Jenny says it’s a stoat or a weasel, she’s not sure which. Later, I think I identify it as a weasel.

Its coat is a pale brown colour and its pure white belly is visible. If you can look past that its neck is snarled in rusty metal, what’s particularly unexpected is that its body, including its tiny paws and mouse-like face, look unblemished.

It isn’t warm but isn’t really cold either, and the fact rigor mortis hasn’t set in suggests it died not long before we arrived.

Traps are often baited to attract wildlife

It’s telling that, rather than seeming triumphant or excited — which you’d expect from someone who is out to get the gamekeepers or trying to prove something — she only seems disappointed and even a little shaken.

“Still, after all this time, it has this effect,” she explains. “It’s hideous.”

This trap is entirely legal and gamekeepers say killing stoats and weasels is necessary because they eat grouse eggs — indeed, there are eggs in the trap, used as bait specifically to catch these animals. Still, having never seen a weasel before, it’s much smaller than I expected and there’s something sinister about seeing a tiny, vulnerable-looking animal mangled by steel.

Moorland monitors often document what was found in the traps but leave everything where they found it

As a journalist, we’ve got what we came here for, which I have to admit in a morbid way I’m pleased about. And yet, I’m surprised by how invested and motivated I feel all of a sudden — it feels like seeing a wrong and wanting to correct it.

That’s how a lot of people get into monitoring, Jenny says. Many campaigners want to see an end to grouse shooting entirely and, after today, it’s difficult not to see their point.

Images and additional reporting by Ethan Shone

12th August 2019