Footage of a trap allegedly being used illegally to target birds of prey has been obtained by The Ferret, amid renewed calls for the SSPCA to be given more powers to tackle wildlife crime.
The publication of the video comes nearly three years after a public consultation on giving the SSPCA new powers was launched by the Scottish Government.
That consultation ended on 1st September 2014 but two and a half years later and still no decision has been announced. When contacted by The Ferret, the Scottish Government declined to set a firm date for when a decision will be made. A government spokesperson would only say a verdict would be announced “in the coming months.”
The video was taken by the League Against Cruel Sports – which supports more powers for the SSPCA – in a location in Lanarkshire that we cannot name for legal reasons. It was taken during an investigation into snares by The League in 2015.
Pole traps are controversial as they’ve been used illegally to catch birds of prey such as buzzards on shooting estates and national parks. Any bird caught in such a trap could be crushed and/or lose its legs, with a slow and painful death likely. These spring traps are legal if they are positioned under cover in a natural or artificial tunnel. When they are set out in the open on top of a post or pole, they are illegal.
The League said it was making the video public now to highlight the urgent need for extended powers for the Scottish SPCA in dealing with wildlife crime, in order to increase conviction rates.
Organisations tackling wildlife crime and raptor persecution have accused the Scottish Government of dragging its heels over one of its ‘key priorities’.
More powers for the SSPCA was first mooted as far back as 2011.
On 7th September 2015, an investigator with The League came across the pole trap and called the Scottish SPCA who attended the scene and and said the police should be notified.
However, by the time officers arrived a man had appeared and removed the trap despite being asked repeatedly not to touch anything in case he contaminated evidence.
A witness statement by an investigator with The League shown to The Ferret, said an illegal trap was located around 10.30am.
In the statement the LACS investigator said: “I recognised this immediately as a ‘pole trap’. I am very aware that these traps are often used to trap and kill birds of prey.
“The trap consisted of a dead pheasant poult laid out on top of a piece of wood that had been placed horizontally on top of a fence which was approximately four feet off the ground and located by the gate of the pen which was the only access point into the pen to attend pheasants.”
On top of the dead pheasant was a mark 4 Fenn spring trap, the statement said, which can be used to trap small animals such as stoats and weasels. Due to their lethal action there are strict rules on how these traps are used, LACS said. They must be covered, with entrances restricted to the size of the target species.
The League’s investigator added: “In this case the Fenn trap sat on top of the pheasant, was open to the sky and a chain coming from the the trap was connected to the fence.
“On further inspection I could see that trap was active, meaning the spring had been opened with the safety catch off and ready to spring shut on anything that landed on the trigger plate.”
The freshness of the dead pheasant – The League think the trap was set the day before – was attracting two buzzards and the investigator said that he had to wave his arms in the air to scare them away.
The SSPCA arrived at 1.30pm. Around 3.09pm, a man arrived carrying a small bag of pheasant feed and was informed an illegal pole trap had been found. Despite being warned not to tamper with potential police evidence, the man picked up the trap and hit it against a wall before leaving it dangling from its chain.
He then fed pheasants in the pen before leaving the scene. Two police officers arrived at 4.00pm and took the trap away in an evidence bag.
The police subsequently dropped the case but The League said it was important to make the video public to highlight the impact a delay in a Scottish Government decision can have.
In this case, had the Scottish SPCA increased powers to deal with wildlife crime the outcome could have been very different. Robbie Marsland, LACS
Robbie Marsland, Director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said: “Someone set this trap and left it in such a way that it was highly likely to cause distress and suffering to wildlife.
“Unfortunately we don’t know who was responsible for this, but this case is a perfect example of how easy it is for wildlife criminals to break the law and walk away unpunished.
“Prosecuting wildlife crime is notoriously difficult given the very nature of these types of crimes, particularly due to the remote locations they generally take place in and unfortunately the minority who flaunt the law are all too aware of this.
“In this case, had the Scottish SPCA increased powers to deal with wildlife crime the outcome could have been very different.”
Marsland added that The League supports increased powers for the Scottish SPCA and any “other sensible measure which increases prosecution rates, sending a strong message that wildlife crime will not be tolerated in Scotland”.
Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn of the SSPCA, said: “We currently cooperate with the police to gather wildlife evidence. At present our statutory enforcement powers are contained within the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 which provides conditional powers to inspectors and constables.
“The current provision does not extend to animals who are already dead whilst caught in illegal traps and snares, nor do they cover illegal traps and snares which are set and present obvious implications to future animal welfare.”
As it stands the wildlife and countryside act states that only a constable can remove illegal traps as evidence, Flynn explained, adding that the SSPCA would like the law changed to also allow an ‘inspector’ which will mean we can assist the police in fighting wildlife crime.
He continued: “We are currently awaiting an answer from parliament to determine whether Scottish SPCA inspectors will be granted extra powers as we would like to be able to enter land in order to retrieve evidence.”
Commenting on the incident, Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Scott, Head of Wildlife Crime said that Police Scotland take wildlife crime “very seriously”.
He added: “It has specialist wildlife crime officers working in every division who respond to specific incidents and also support the investigations undertaken by their colleagues.
“The importance of both partners and members of the public contacting Police Scotland as soon as possible when encountering anything suspicious cannot be understated and, on this occasion, there was considerable delay before that information was passed.
“Had Police Scotland been informed initially, instead of the SSPCA, it is likely that officers would have attended prior to the suspect removing the trap.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “A decision on whether to extend the investigatory powers of the SSPCA will be announced in the coming months.”
During the passage of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (WANE) Bill, the Scottish Parliament debated an extension of powers for the SSPCA that would allow them to investigate a greater number of suspected wildlife crimes.
Announcing its consultation, the Scottish Government said it is widely accepted that wildlife crime is difficult to investigate which leads to difficulties in mounting prosecutions and securing convictions. These crimes often occur in remote locations where there are few or no witnesses.
When incidents are discovered it is often impossible for police officers to attend the scene quickly and delays increase the likelihood of any evidence being destroyed – either deliberately or simply as a result of exposure.
Although the SSPCA’s powers do not allow them to investigate all wildlife crime incidents, during the five year period from 2007 to 2012 it was involved in 188 wildlife crime cases, 67 of which proceeded to prosecution – 37 of those prosecutions resulted in a conviction. Of these 37 cases, 23 were solely handled by the SSPCA; the remaining 14 were cases in which the SSPCA assisted the police.