Sparrowhawk starved to death in a crow cage trap.

On 16 December Cheshire gamekeeper Hilton Prest appeared at Manchester Magistrates Court and pleaded guilty to:

“Unlawfully using a trap on or before 10/2/21 contrary to Sec 5(1)(b) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.”

Legalistically that all sounds ‘interesting’; but what does it mean in reality? It means that an amateur gamekeeper misused a crow cage trap and a Blackbird and a Sparrowhawk paid the ultimate price – they died; killed by what could at best be described as incompetence.

Gamekeeper Prest was described in the RSPB Investigations blog as an amateur gamekeeper. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an amateur as a person who:

  1. works on an unpaid basis, or
  2. is considered inept at a particular activity.

Consider the facts of this case and decide which one of these definitions more accurately describes Mr Prest’s actions that led to his prosecution.

The facts in this case are simple. Mr Prest was responsible for the management of a ‘crow cage ladder trap’ on an estate managed for shooting gamebirds near Bosley, Cheshire. When used correctly this type of trap can be operated legally under the appropriate General Licence issued by the Government. The General Licence defines this type of trap as:

“Multi-catch cage trap” means a cage large enough to be entered by the operator, which is covered in mesh and uses either a roof-funnel, ground funnel or ladder/letterbox entry point for birds to gain access to the cage”

The cage is designed as a predator trap with one way in, no way out. The purpose of this trap is also simple, catch a predator, designated as such in the legislation, and kill it. Non-target species accidently caught must be released and when not in use the trap must be disabled by ensuring that the door has been removed completely or secured in the open position enabling birds to escape if they do enter the trap.

In the depth of winter on 10 February 2021 a member of the public found the closed cage trap containing a Sparrowhawk. A Sparrowhawk is not a specified target species and should have been released when Mr Prest undertook his legally required daily inspection; as should the Blackbird that was also later found dead in the trap. The fact that the Blackbird was described as ‘the remains of a Blackbird’ is perhaps an indication that the trap had not been examined for some time prior to the 10th February.

Photograph courtesy of RSPB.

Initially, when the Sparrowhawk was found in the cage trap, it was alive. The witness opened the door slightly in the hope that the Sparrowhawk would escape. The incident was then reported to the RSPB Investigations Team on 16th February and they attended on the following day. The Sparrowhawk was still in the cage; however it was dead. A post mortem later confirmed that the bird had starved to death.

Photograph courtesy of RSPB.

At the conclusion of the trial, District Judge Mr Jack McGarver said that he accepted that the act was careless rather than reckless or intentional, but that the degree of carelessness was high, and that it was well below the standard that was expected.

Perhaps it was carelessness or forgetfulness that led to the door being left in the closed position; but there are other interesting questions about this case that are not covered by the short press release. When this type of trap is operated with a decoy bird it must be supplied with adequate food, water, a suitable perch and shelter from the prevailing wind and rain. Looking at the snow covered cage photograph there is no evidence that any of these legally required elements were present in the cage. Had they been removed, or never installed? If they had been removed it would imply that the trap was being decommissioned; if so why wasn’t the door removed or secured in the open position at the same time?

Whether Mr Prest is an amateur or professional gamekeeper is irrelevant. Whether he was careless or not, as the person responsible for managing this cage trap he had a duty of care to ensure that these two birds did not have to endure a long protected, excruciating death in freezing temperatures. He failed in that duty.

We know from the statement made by RSPB Investigations Officer, Tom Grose, that there was a small amount of grain inside the cage; was it this grain that first attracted the Blackbird into the closed cage? They will eat seeds and with snow on the ground it may have been the only food available at that time. Did the Sparrowhawk follow the Blackbird into the cage looking for an easy meal? We will never know. However, we do know that had the door had been removed or secured in the open position both birds could have escaped and avoided a pointless and cruel death.

The General Licence that permits the use of multi-catch traps, specifically states that if the door it not removed it must be secured in the open position when not in use. Unfortunately the licence then goes on to give ‘advice’ about how this can be achieved, including that padlocks are the most secure method. Unfortunately this is inadequate; the General licence needs amending to make the use of padlocks mandatory. With this amendment, already applicable in Scotland, there can be no ambiguity about what operators are legally required to do to ensure that birds are not caught and left to die in unsupervised traps.

The Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG] is a Police led organisation and in respect of criminal activities the first duty of the Police is to prevent crime from occurring in the first place. This case has highlighted the short-comings within the advice section of the General Licence and provides an opportunity for the RPPDG to press the Government for a change in the Licence which would make the use of a padlock to secure cage trap doors (if the door has not been removed) mandatory . The shooting industry is very well represented on the RPPDG and several of the member organisations have published guidelines highlighting the statutory responsibilities of trap operators. In theory therefore they should be eager to support any measure that would help their members to avoid breaking the law.

The RPPDG also has had an action to deliver educational programs to young gamekeepers in relation to raptor persecution for several years. R. v Prest is an excellent example of how not to manage a multi-catch trap and the potential consequences of operating one without due diligence and should be added to the curriculum. This is something else that the shooting industry representatives can support wholeheartedly.

Whilst trainee gamekeepers can undoubtedly benefit from studying this case it should be remembered that Mr Prest is 58 years old and his peer group of gamekeepers should also take note of the case and the penalties imposed by the court. The shooting industry representatives on the RPPDG could condemn the actions of Mr Prest and circulate details of this case to their members immediately. This action would be in line with the obligation upon all members to raise public awareness of raptor persecution nationally.


19 December 2021