It?s quite easy when you?re trapping the really obvious things, such as crows and magpies, and the larger predators of game, such as foxes, to forget the smaller pests ? stoats, weasels, rats and mink. So I always try to reduce the numbers of these small mammals as part of my spring campaign.

Catching a few of them now will really help later on and, though I trap around release areas in June, July and August, the spring months are when I have the time to cover the whole shoot, before I get too busy with hatching and rearing. Once there are birds on the rearing field, I don?t have the time to run a trapline. Most of the tunnels have the traps removed, and the cage traps and Larsens are put away until the following year.

Stoats and weasels

Stoats are exceptionally good egg thieves and will take chicks, kill poults and be a real problem around partridge release pens. They can get in anywhere, so fencing them out doesn?t work. They are also excellent climbers ? so good, in fact, that on several occasions we?ve shot them out of old nests and squirrel drays on trees that appeared to be totally smooth. Luckily, they?re fairly easy to catch and sometimes can be called in close enough to be shot.

Most of my stoats are caught in tunnel traps. I have a bit of trouble around the pens every year, but the odd tunnel trap in the right place seems to work. I?ve also tried baited tunnels and cage traps, but in the summer the bait quickly went off and I didn?t always have anything to hand with which to re-bait it. A friend suggested using an egg, which apparently has enough scent to attract both stoats and rats. I?ve tried it, but found that the catch rate didn?t increase so I have gone back to simple tunnels.

Weasels can be caught in the same ways as stoats, but I don?t think they do that much harm, and while I?m sure they can be a problem on a wild bird shoot, they tend not to be on mine.

Rats

Rats may not immediately spring to mind when we think about predators, but they?re near the top of my list. Rats will eat a fortune in feed, gnaw and ruin hoppers, hunt and find every nest in a hedge, spread disease and can be a real problem near laying pens and rearing units. I tackle them as soon as shooting finishes as they tend to be concentrated in certain areas. If I leave it too long, they spread out and are harder both to find and to control.

Poisoning is the only method I?ve found to be really effective. A few squeaks are all it takes for them to start avoiding tunnels. I?ve had lots of fun ratting with terriers, but though I?ve killed many, I?ve missed quite a few as well. Poisoning rat burrows and areas to which they?ve moved during the winter works best for me. After two to three weeks the area becomes rat-free. Get hold of a gas-operated Rodenator to destroy the burrows, but remember that the burrows must first be rat-free.

Mink

Mink are one of the few predators that I target all year so, though I try to have a clear-out in spring, I always have a few traps set in their favourite places.

I seem to have the most success with cages. Cage traps set along watercourses, next to weirs or under bridges, are easy to check when I pass while feeding or dogging-in. These cages are un-baited and covered with natural stones to form dark tunnels. I have the doors facing the direction from which I?ll view them, so the traps can be checked as I pass without having to get off my quad or out of a truck.

On my wetland areas and flightponds, I?ve got a couple of Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust-designed mink rafts, which I check usually once a week. If I see any mink prints in the mud in the centre of the tunnel, I pop a cage trap inside and check it every day until it?s caught, which usually takes less than a week.

Baiting cage-traps seems to improve the catch rate a little. I dig a small hole, fill it with cheap fish-flavoured cat food, pop the trap on top, then make a tunnel around the cage with stones or logs to prevent the mink digging-in. Bait under the trap seems to work better than bait in the trap.

Humane despatching

Making sure I despatch everything I catch quickly and humanely in my cage traps is of vital importance, as is regular checking. By law, traps set in natural tunnels must be checked every day. If I don?t check every trap I set regularly I may leave myself open to charges of causing unnecessary cruelty.

The best method of despatch I?ve found for anything caught in a cage-trap is to push it into one end with a couple of fork-shaped pieces of wood, then, when it?s not moving, simply shoot it in the head with an air pistol. You can also bolt the animal into a hessian sack, tie the opening, push it into the end, and then use a priest. This may work with the smaller stuff, but probably isn?t a very good idea if you?ve just caught a mink.

Don?t be tempted to act outside of the law. The last thing anyone wants is to provide those who want to ban all traps and predator control with more ammunition.