There has recently been some discussion on Twitter in relation to tunnel traps. This blog may assist in understanding the law governing the use of these traps.
Tunnel traps, which include bridge traps (often referred to as rail traps), are efficient methods of controlling small mammalian pest species. The law permitting the use of these traps is the Spring Traps Approval (Scotland) Order 2011 (there are different Orders covering the rest of the UK but by and large the law is similar). Though a number of traps have been given government approval, those principally used are the Fenn Mk I, II, IV and VI; Solway Nos. 4 and 6 and Springer Nos. 4 and 6. The smaller traps (I, II IV and No 4 can be used for grey squirrels, stoats, weasels, edible dormice, rats and mice. The inclusion of edible dormice (Glis glis) is most likely because they are non-native, as opposed to the native hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), which is on Schedule 2 of the Habitats Regulations as a European Protected Species. The UK range of the edible dormouse, at least in the meantime, seems restricted to southern England. The larger traps (Mk VI and No 6) can additionally be used for rabbits and mink.
The traps must be set in a natural or artificial tunnel which is ‘suitable for minimising the chances of capturing, killing or injuring non-target species whilst not compromising the killing or taking of target species’. No guideline as to the maximum size of the access hole to the tunnel is given in the Order, but in the design of the tunnel, particularly the entrance, the operator must minimise (dictionary definition – reduce to the lowest possible degree or amount) the chance of catching non-target species. An unsuitable tunnel would be one which clearly permits access to species larger than the largest that may legally be caught: the grey squirrel (or the mink or rabbit in the case of the larger traps).
This is a difficult area in which to be prescriptive, especially with the larger though less commonly-used traps, but the tunnel should not, so far as is possible, allow access to non-target mammals such as hedgehogs, pine martens, etc. Even when a genuine attempt has been made to restrict tunnel entrances by stones or other natural items, there will always be an odd occasion when a non-target mammal will manage to squeeze in. It may be a young hedgehog, a young rabbit or a mink, but these should only be very occasional by-catch, otherwise the trap should be removed or the entrance altered. Gridweld mesh end(s), or a wooden end to the tunnel with a hole in the centre, are much better and much less likely to result in by-catch. If a genuine effort is made to comply with the law then, even if a red squirrel or pine marten is caught, the law may not necessarily be broken unless it would be reasonable to conclude that the operator should have known that he would be likely to trap such a protected animal.
The part of the description of what is permitted in the use of the traps is interesting with the new (2011) inclusion of the phrase ‘whilst not compromising the killing or taking of target species’. Does this now mean that if both grey squirrels and red squirrels are in the same woodland a trap (particularly a bridge or rail trap which is more likely to take red squirrels than those set in dark tunnels) can be used even though it may take an occasional red squirrel? Might this be in conflict with Section 11(2) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act which states that it is an offence if any person sets in position any of the following articles, being an article which is of such a nature and so placed as to be likely (this term only applies in Scotland) to cause bodily injury to any wild animal included in Schedule 6 which comes into contact therewith, that is to say, any trap or snare (etc)? Schedule 6 includes the badger, wildcat, hedgehog, and red squirrel. This is as yet untested in court but I see this as a possible argument by defence agents.
The most common method of abuse with tunnel traps is their use in tunnels where the access is considerably greater that the approved use allows. Examples are stone-built tunnels with no attempt to restrict access, wooden tunnels with no ends fitted and no attempt to restrict access, or simply a couple of twigs stuck in the ground at the tunnel entrance that a hedgehog, cat or other larger mammal could easily bulldoze aside.
For policing purposes the law is not straightforward, and I would much rather see a prescriptive maximum size for the tunnel entrance, depending on the trap involved. Where traps are suspected of being used illegally they should be reported to the police. Traps that appear to be used legally should not be interfered with. If tunnel traps are set legally there is no requirement for it to be checked at specified intervals.
There are no circumstances in which gin traps can legally be set, though it is not an offence to possess a gin trap, unless with intent to use it.