The publication this month of a new general licence for the trapping of stoats has brought the issue of wildlife persecution back into the spotlight. It serves to remind us – if we needed reminding – of the countless thousands of sentient wild animals killed every year in the name of “pest” or “vermin” control, most of it associated with the sport shooting industry.
Let me say from the outset that OneKind is opposed to the killing of wildlife and particularly so when the purpose is to augment populations of other wild creatures so that they can be shot for sport. We’ve written about that extensively over the years and published ground-breaking reports such as Lonely Scotland and Untold Suffering. The purpose of this particular blog is to look at the way a small component of that killing is regulated, how the regime developed and how it could be improved.
There is widespread killing of stoats in the Scottish countryside – no licence required, no records kept, no justification given, no daily trap inspection undertaken. The traps used are spring traps, of which the best-known is the Fenn trap, after the manufacturer of the original break-back model. Legislation lists the approved brands and how they are to be used, but unless someone sets a trap in a non-compliant manner – on a pole, for example, to catch a bird of prey – there is little or no enforcement.
So why has stoat trapping now been singled out for a licensing regime? The answer lies in the stoat’s beautiful winter coat, known as ermine and historically prized by the fur trade for garments including royal and ducal robes. Ermine from animals trapped in Canada and the former Soviet Union was a major part of the trade, in years gone by.
Killing animals for fur has long been recognised for its cruelty, in particular the notorious leghold trap used well into the 20thcentury in North America and Russia. Legislation to ban the jaw type leghold trap in the European Community (EC) was passed in 1991 and included a proposed import ban on furs and fur goods from countries using leghold or any other trap that did not meet international humane trapping standards. Unfortunately, there were no such standards. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) was unable to agree on a definition of “humane” and, with a major trade dispute pending, the EC, Canada and Russia began to develop their own agreement. The resultant Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS) covers the trapping of animals for fur, skin or meat, conservation, pest control and general wildlife management purposes, across more than a dozen species commonly trapped outside the UK.
Five of these species occur in the wild in the UK: European BadgerMeles meles, European Beaver Castor fiber, European Otter Lutra lutra, Pine Marten Martes martes andStoat Mustela erminea. The first four are protected species but the stoat is regularly and widely trapped in the UK and it is the only species for which lethal traps are commonly used.
The AIHTS was finally signed in 2008 with an eight-year lead-in period for implementation. The UK, like all other signatories, should have brought its measures in by 2016. But trap users protested that there was no satisfactory substitute for their Fenn traps and the UK government agreed to ask for extra time to make changes.
Testing for more “humane” traps did get underway, as did industry-dominated working groups followed by a DEFRA consultation on implementation of the AIHTS. By 2019, UK legislation covering all four administrations brought in a general prohibition on the trapping or snaring of the five furbearing species, even though none of these animals are trapped for fur in the UK. Badgers, beavers, otters and pine marten are live-trapped for a variety of purposes, including translocation, and this is still permitted under specific licence. But such a system could not keep up with gamekeepers’ demands to continue trapping stoats in the name of predator control.
Traps therefore had to be developed for widespread use that would meet the welfare standards of the AIHTS and could be permitted for more general use. It should be said, by the way, that these are not the most rigorous of standards. Consider the length of time it takes a trapped animal to die or at least become unconscious, suffering all the while from pain, shock, broken bones, contusions or blood loss. For most species, the AIHTS allows that period, known as the Time to Irreversible Unconsciousness (TIU), to last as long as five minutes. For stoats, the permitted TIU is 45 seconds but, as the Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) wrote in response to the DEFRA consultation:
“Since we believe the current TIU criteria have no logical scientific foundation, we would wish to see the development and approval of traps where TIU was effectively reduced to zero in order to protect animal welfare.”
Five types of spring traps are now approved for stoats on Spring Traps Approval Orders across the UK. Fenn traps are not permitted, although they can still be used for other species, such as weasels, rats and grey squirrels.
The final piece of the regulatory jigsaw was put in place on 1 April with the issue of those General Licences, which allow the continued widespread killing of stoats, so long as the right traps are used.
Even here, the shooting industry has been fiercely resistant to any change in its practice. The first draft licence for England provoked a furious letter from the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation to Secretary of State George Eustice MP, protesting about restrictive conditions and the fact that DEFRA’s implementation plan appeared to be “all about stoat welfare” (disregarding the fact that the AIHTS is intended to protect welfare). Natural England was said to have shown its “utter incompetence to run wildlife licensing in England”. The Countryside Alliance described the first drafts as “abysmal”, “lengthy” and “unworkable”.
Two weeks later, however, the industry’s fears of not being allowed virtually free rein to trap stoats appeared to have been allayed, with the final, published licences being described as not ideal, but “workable”.
The English licences are still very long and include two full pages of legal instruction and links to best practice guidance. There are two separate licences, one for the conservation of wild birds and one for the protection of livestock, including reared gamebirds. The licence for conservation of wild birds does not require users to be “actively engaged in efforts to conserve the wild bird(s)”; and red-legged partridges and common pheasants are to be treated as “wild birds”. Both licences therefore permit stoat control by game rearing businesses. Five types of kill traps are approved, plus one live cage trap normally used for mink.
In Scotland, there is one short General Licence permitting the trapping of stoats for both purposes – wild birds and livestock protection. Only the five kill traps are approved for use and SNH has made clear that the use of any other type is an offence.
The positive outcome from all this is the development of slightly more humane killing traps for stoats. On the negative side, we still have highly permissive regimes, both north and south of the border, that allow wholesale killing of sentient wild mammals, at any time of year, without any requirement for record-keeping, monitoring or accountability. Traps that are banned for stoats are still permitted for weasels, a species that does not feature in the AIHTS. Where is the logic in protecting the welfare of certain species, when other species are also trapped in large numbers by similar means?
Because so many questions remain, it seemed worth setting down the long saga of the AIHTS and the minimal improvements it has brought for animal welfare in this country. This work originated in the UK animal welfare movement and it has certainly mitigated the horrors of the leghold trap (although variants remain in use in Canada, the USA and elsewhere). But it could not resolve all the welfare issues surrounding the trapping of animals. The need for review and reform is as urgent as ever.
That is what we at OneKind aim to achieve in Scotland with our current petition PE01762 in the Scottish Parliament, calling for a thorough review of the necessity, means and welfare impacts of trapping and killing wild animals, and an overhaul of the whole trapping regulation system. We will report back on that in due course.