There are many different signs you may come across which may lead your suspicions to illegal activity. 


The control of certain birds and mammals by legal methods involving shooting, traps, snares & pesticides is a lawful part of farming and game management, and is sometimes appropriate in the conservation of species at risk. This website, and those of several RPPDG members, contains more information about legal and illegal control of birds and animals.


Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and various other legislation there are controls and restrictions on the use of the various methods to control birds and mammals. This section gives details of things to look out for while using the countryside and should not be used to fully understand the complex law in this regard. 

Spring traps

Spring traps can be lawfully used to control a number of mammals, including species such as rats, stoats, weasels, mink and grey squirrels. All spring traps have to be approved and used in specific conditions to minimise the risk of catching non-target animals. Typically, they will be set in a suitable natural or artificial tunnel with a restricted entrance, or a suitable housing will be provided with the trap.


Do not interfere with lawfully set traps, to damage or destroy a legally set trap could constitute criminal damage. If in doubt, take photographs and contact the police or another agency.


The Pests Act 1954 makes it is an offence to use a spring trap for the purposes of killing or taking animals in England and Wales other than one approved by an Order of the Secretary of State. The current approved traps and conditions of use can be found at - EnglandWales.


Under Section 8, it is an offence, in respect of any animal, to use or permit the use of :

1.    an unapproved spring trap (e.g. a gin trap which is a form of spring trap with toothed jaws, banned in 1958), or

2.   an approved trap in unapproved circumstances (e.g. a Fenn trap placed out in the open on a pole to catch birds of prey, i.e. being used as a ‘pole trap’), or

3.    to sell, offer for sale or possess any spring trap for such an unlawful purpose


Note - from 1 April 2020 some traps currently approved will no longer be permitted to be set to target stoats.





                                              Gin trap (unlawful)


The Order specifies the target species and how each trap must be used, for example set in natural or artificial tunnels or in some cases a rabbit burrow (the artificial tunnel can be in the form of a mesh tunnel – the style of which is regularly seen on moorland set up as a ‘rail trap’, see below). The tunnel entrance should be restricted to avoid the capture of non-target species. 

Pole traps


Using a trap as a pole trap has been illegal for over 100 years.  Birds of prey will often use fence posts or poles as vantage points, or they will return to a post to feed after having just caught some prey. Pole traps are used illegally by some individuals to take advantage of this natural behaviour, and traps have sometimes been found positioned on posts close to game-rearing pens or on exposed posts on open moorland – with the sole intention of catching birds of prey that land on the pole or post.  When the bird lands on the trap, the spring snaps shut around the bird’s legs with such force that the bird’s leg is usually broken. When the bird tries to fly away it is prevented from doing so as the spring trap is usually chained to the post. The bird is left exhausted and dangling from the post with terrible injuries and can suffer a prolonged and agonising death, or will be killed when the person setting the trap returns.

If you see a pole trap you should report it immediately (see ‘Report’). If you have to walk away from the trap (e.g. to get a phone signal), take photographs of the trap whilst it is still set (a close up to show the trap is set and wider shots with a local landscape feature in the background to confirm the location) then disarm it. Use a stick to disarm it – not your fingers – the spring action of these traps is so powerful it could break bones. You can watch a video about this here

Legal traps

Pole traps are not to be confused with legally set traps, such as the example shown below. Such traps are often used to legally catch rats, weasels, and stoats.

Spring traps can be legally used within a tunnel or artificial tunnel (such as the cage tunnel shown). The ends of the tunnel or cage tunnel should have some form of restriction to prevent other animals or birds getting into the tunnel area and onto the trap.

In the example shown the mesh on the ends serves that purpose, so the trap is fine. In some cases you may see two large nails acting as a barrier to larger animals or birds entering the tunnel. If a tunnel such as this one is open-ended with no mesh or restriction on the end then please inform your local police who will check the trap.

If you suspect a crime has been committed, always contact the Police. other agencies can also provide advice on this. 

To damage a legally set trap would constitute criminal damage.


Cage traps (live catchers)

A number of cage traps can lawfully be used to catch certain birds and mammals alive. Once caught they may be humanely killed, or perhaps ringed and released as part of scientific studies. Cage traps come in various sizes, depending on the target species. They will normally use food and/or a live decoy bird to entice the target animals into the trap.


The government issue several General Licences in England and Wales to allow an authorised person (typically a landowner or person authorised by them) to use a cage trap to catch a small number of bird species. The licences are regularly reviewed and can be found at – EnglandWales



Crow cage trap with smaller Larsen trap in the foreground.                         Larsen trap with magpie acting as the decoy or call bird.

Whilst it is not necessary to have physical possession of a licence, it is important to comply with the conditions of these as otherwise offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 may be committed. Key conditions include that when in use traps have to be checked daily, any birds caught have to be killed humanely and any non-target species must be released unharmed. If live decoy birds are being used, welfare must be considered including the provision of suitable food, water, shelter and a perch.


There are two types of cage trap most regularly used to catch birds. One is a fixed structure, commonly referred to as a crow cage trap, comprising a wooden frame covered with mesh and usually big enough for a person to get inside. There is an access point for target birds in the roof of the trap. The traps effectively work like a lobster pot and once a bird enters it is unable to escape. The other is a much smaller and portable Larsen trap. These normally use a live decoy bird and have two or more trapping compartments with a release mechanism to close a spring-loaded door. They are normally used in the spring when birds are territorial and placing a cage trap with a live decoy, such as a carrion crow, will incite a mobbing response from resident birds leading to them becoming caught in the trapping compartments.


When any cage trap is not in use, it must be rendered incapable of holding or catching birds or other animals.


These traps can also be used illegally to target birds of prey, and an illegal live decoy such as a pigeon or game bird may be used to draw birds of prey into the trap. Where there is concern that a trap may be being used illegally, take photographs and report the matter. Again, do not interfere with lawfully set cage traps, but if in doubt take photographs and contact the authorities.

Poisoning of birds of prey (and other wildlife)


Approved pesticides may be used under specified conditions to control certain animals, such as the use of rodenticides to kill rats. Many of these products can only be used by professional pesticide users. The products should be used in manner to minimise the risks to non-target animals and the placing of a poisoned bait in the open countryside is illegal. A best practice information document can be seen here


Other wildlife may become poisoned by inappropriate or careless use of lawful pesticides. However, in some cases pesticides are deliberately and illegally used to kill predatory birds and mammals, such as birds of prey and foxes. However, these poisoned baits are completely indiscriminate and can be dangerous to other wildlife, as well as people, children and pets.


The abuse of pesticide typically involves placing a poisoned bait out in the open where the intended target can access it. A poisoned bait may take the form of a pigeon or rabbit carcass or piece of meat which has been laced with a pesticide. Sometimes eggs are injected with poison, often discolouring the contents of the egg. A number of banned pesticides, such as carbofuran which was withdrawn from agricultural use in 2001, are still persistently used in the illegal poisoning of wildlife.


A poisoned bait will be attractive to carrion-feeding birds such as buzzards and red kites. Because the pesticides can be very toxic, the victims are often found close to the baits as shown in the featured photograph.


If you think you have found poisoned bait or victims, do not touch, warn others to stay away, note the exact location and details of any evidence. If safe to do so, consider covering the item, perhaps with branches, to reduce risks to other animals. There is a government wildlife poisoning hotline on 0800 321 600 to which suspected incidents should be reported, an information document or you can visit their websites here or here.


If this is not possible then report to police or another agency.

Photo Credits

Raptor Persecution UK

Birders Against Wildlife Crime


North Yorkshire Police

Nest Disruption & Egg Theft

All wild bird species, their eggs and nests are protected by law. You must always try to avoid harming birds or to use measures which do not kill or injure them before considering taking harmful action.

You’re breaking the law if you:

  • intentionally kill, injure or take wild birds

  • intentionally take, damage or destroy a wild bird’s nest while it’s being used or built

  • intentionally take or destroy a wild bird’s egg

  • possess, control or transport live or dead wild birds, or parts of them, or their eggs

  • sell wild birds or put them on display for sale

  • use prohibited methods to kill or take wild birds

For birds of prey (Schedule 1 Birds) it’s also an offence to do the following, either intentionally or by not taking enough care:

  • disturb them while they’re nesting, building a nest, in or near a nest that contains their young

  • disturb their dependent young


Activities that can harm birds

These activities can affect wild birds, particularly during breeding season:

  • trimming or cutting trees, bushes, hedges and rough vegetation

  • renovating, converting or demolishing a building

  • creating disturbance, e.g. noise, lighting and vibration (including Drone flights)

  • taking actions to prevent problems, e.g. shooting birds or removing nests

For further information, please visit Government website.

Photography & Drones

We like to encourage everyone to enjoy our wildlife, a reassuring presence can often keep our our animals safe for us all to enjoy. Wildlife photography has changed significantly with improvements in technology, Operation Owl encourages the safe use of photography equipment and drones. 


Breeding animals and rare birds could be disturbed or distressed by would-be photographers and irresponsible drone pilots trying to get photographs.


Drone pilots, whether hobbyists or professionals should take responsibility to avoid disturbing any animals, including nesting or roosting birds. The spring breeding season is intrinsically hard for our wild animals and we urge you to let nature take it intended course for our animals to flourish in their natural habitat. Human interference with the young of many animals could have catastrophic impacts on their survival chances, also flying drones irresponsibly close to nesting birds could cause great distress and even cause nests to fail. 


Give our wildlife the best chance in life and know your limitations. It is an offence for people who fly drones intentionally or recklessly to disturb any wild bird listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.


Please familiarise yourselves with the CAA guidance.

Photo Credits

Nesting Chicks- UBPRC

Eggs- Raptor Politics

Drone- NWCU


Shooting of birds or prey is one of the most commonly used methods of persecution. Working alone or in groups, the shooting often takes place as a bird comes into a roost site, nest site, or flies close enough to be shot from the sky. 

Plastic decoy birds are often used in legal pest control, however offenders will sometimes use these decoy birds which resemble owls and other birds of prey to lure in a territorial bird close to the shooter who will lay in wait. Hand-held electronic bird call devices are also sometimes used. Calls of birds of prey are downloaded onto such devices and used illegally to attract target species close enough to be shot.

The pictures show a buzzard that was seriously injured but still alive when it was found. 

The x-ray showed that the shot had shattered it’s :

  • Collarbone, 

  • Shoulder, 

  • Humerus

Members of the public using the countryside should report any suspicious activity to the Police as soon as possible.

Photo Credits

North Yorkshire Police


There are many different signs you may come across which may lead your suspicions to illegal activity. 

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