The traps were set on remote moorland on Widdale Fell. Photo: Chris Heaton CC-BY-SA-2.0

The traps were set on remote moorland on Widdale Fell. Photo: Chris Heaton CC-BY-SA-2.0

A conservation charity has criticised a police force’s decision to issue a formal caution to a man who admitted setting illegal traps on a Yorkshire Dales shooting estate.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the three pole traps were barbaric and have been outlawed for more than 100 years.

It called for zero tolerance of wildlife crime and expressed dismay that the perpetrator had not been taken to court.

North Yorkshire Police said it takes all aspects of rural policing extremely seriously and a court prosecution had been considered, but the force had decided an adult caution was the most appropriate course of action.

The offence took place on the Mossdale Estate on the north side of Widdale Fell near Garsdale Head.

The RSPB said pole traps were outlawed in 1904 and consist of a metal spring trap placed on an exposed post to target birds of prey. When triggered they snap shut with considerable force, crushing the legs of the bird. Trapped birds remain present until they succumb to their injuries or are killed by the trap operator.

On 6 May this year, a member of the public reported finding three spring traps illegally set in the open on isolated posts about 100 metres apart at a remote location on the hill.

The charity said: “Particularly concerning, was that a hen harrier had been sighted the same morning hunting on the fell a short distance away. The finder made two of the traps safe and reported the matter to the RSPB.

“RSPB investigators attended that same day and installed covert cameras on two of the traps. The safety catch was put in place on the remaining set trap to prevent it catching anything.

“Returning on the evening of Monday 9 May, it was discovered that all three pole traps had been reset. The covert footage showed an individual earlier that day taking the safety catch off one trap and resetting another.

“RSPB investigators made the traps safe and reported the matter to the police. Wildlife crime officers from North Yorkshire Police attended with RSPB the following day and recovered all three unset traps. Two of the traps had small feathers adhering to the jaws, suggesting they may previously have caught birds.”

A man subsequently interviewed by police admitted setting the three traps and was given an adult caution.

A simple caution can be given to an offender who admits an offence and is recorded on the individual’s criminal record. The decision to issue such a caution has to be made by an officer of the rank of sergeant or above, who has not been involved in the investigation.

Bob Elliot, head of RSPB investigations, said: “These are dreadful barbaric devices and have no place in the 21st century. North Yorkshire has long held the unenviable reputation of the worst county in England for raptor persecution.

“The sighting of a hen harrier in the immediate area is of particular concern. This species is nearly extinct as a breeding species in England and it last bred successfully in North Yorkshire in 2007 despite huge areas of suitable habitat.

“Earlier this year [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] launched its hen harrier action plan, which has been supported by shooting organisations. Yet again, we have seen that there appears to be little sign that birds of prey will be tolerated in our uplands.

“These crimes are extremely difficult to investigate. While we are grateful for the excellent police response in attending this incident, we simply do not understand the decision to issue a caution for such a serious case. We will be writing to the police to ask for an explanation of this decision.

“The UK Government has set raptor persecution as one of the national wildlife crime priorities. To create a meaningful deterrent we believe there needs to be a zero tolerance to serious crimes of this nature.”

A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “The persecution of birds of prey is a UK wildlife crime priority, and the successful conviction in this case demonstrates the tenacity and strong working relationship that exists between North Yorkshire Police, the RSPB and other rural partners.

“The investigation led the suspect, a 23-year-old man from the Hawes area, to go to Richmond police station as a voluntary attendee on 22 May. He made a full and frank admission to using the illegal spring pole traps near Widdale Fell, which were initially reported to the police on 10 May by the RSPB who had obtained video evidence of the offence.

“All options in how to deal with the man were considered, including a prosecution at court. However, based on the case at hand, it was decided the most appropriate course of action was to give him an adult caution.

“We are grateful to the RSPB for their praise towards the police officers involved in the investigation. We are also mindful of their concerns regarding the decision to issue the adult caution. We will take the necessary time to review the case and will respond to the RSPB in due course.

“The outstanding efforts of our specialist wildlife crime officers, along with the recent addition of the dedicated rural taskforce, shows that North Yorkshire Police takes all aspects of rural policing extremely seriously.”

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