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How to use traps for pest control

Using traps to reduce rats, squirrels, stoats and weasels. Liam Bells offers some useful advice.

rat feeding from grain

Rat feeding from a hopper

If you want to try and nurture wild stock, it’s worth taking the time to use traps for pest control to deal with small predators such as stoats, weasels and rats. You probably have corvids and foxes at the top of your predator list, but it is also worth reducing the numbers of the smaller predators too.


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Trapping stoats

The law on trapping stoats has recently changed and from 1 April 2020, Fenn, Springer, Solway, Magnum, Conibear and Kania traps may no longer be set to catch stoats. Stoats may only be caught in spring traps or live traps listed in new General Licences issued separately in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Trapping legislation chart

Traps which can now be used legally are:

  • DOC 150 body grip kill trap
  • DOC 200 body grip kill trap
  • DOC 250 body grip kill trap
  • Tully Trap body grip kill trap
  • Goodnature A24 rat and stoat captive bolt kill trap
  • Perdix mink live capture cage trap

Stoats are major predators of eggs and chicks. If you don’t see them it doesn’t mean they aren’t around. They’re not that easy to catch either.

While baiting traps with things such as eggs can improve the success rate the real key to catching them is a well-positioned natural-looking tunnel.

Liam Bell demonstrates how to use the DOC trap 

Picking the best spot for your tunnels is something of an art and is one of those things that gets easier with experience. Options include gateways, gaps in hedges, siting traps alongside watercourses, building them in to stone walls and natural features such as rock piles or placing them against rabbit netting or a natural feature that will encourage them to enter the tunnel.

The tunnels need to look inviting, and the trap itself should be almost invisible. If it can be dug into the floor of the tunnel so that it is level with the ground, all the better. It isn’t always possible, especially if the tunnel is in rock pile or wall, but you might be able to place a flat stone or two either side of the trap so that there is less of a step on to the trap from the tunnel floor. My old head keeper used to insist we pulled a light covering of sieved soil over the top of each trap with a forked stick. I don’t do it much now, but I still make sure the soil either side of the trap is firm, and that there are no stones under the plate of the trap that will stop it going off.

If you do catch a stoat, try to empty its bladder on to the tunnel or trap plate (in much the same way as you would a shot rabbit). The smell might put the odd squirrel off but it will help to pull in any other stoats that are hunting the same area.

Tunnel traps

A rat caught in a Fenn trap – rats are communal and are notoriously trap-shy

Trapping rats

Rats are notoriously trap-shy. I’ve experimented with many different ways to make a tunnel more inviting to rats, with only limited success. They are communal animals and, once they hear the trap go off and probably the accompanying squeak from the rat the trap has caught, they tend to shy away from the tunnel. I have tried eggs and a trap at either end of a longer-than-normal tunnel. It worked but didn’t increase the catch rate by much.

A friend discovered a way to increase his catch rate by accident. He had a few rats in and around his yard, set a couple of tunnels and caught the odd rat. Then his six- year-old son pushed some feathers from the plucking shed up one of the tunnels. The following morning he had caught a rat. He reset the trap and pushed the feathers back up the tunnel. His trap caught the next five nights on the trot.

I have tried using feathers but only for rats. It may work for stoats and weasels as well, but would probably deter squirrels, which is why we haven’t tried it in the woods.

Not catching any rats?

Q: We have rats digging and burrowing next to our feeders. We have set lots of tunnel traps, but we aren’t catching any. We have caught a few grey squirrels, but no rats, which is what we set the traps for in the first place. Any advice gratefully received.

A: Rats are difficult to trap. As you have found out, they are adept at finding spring feeders. The fact that you are catching a few squirrels does mean you are not too far off, but you may need to tweak things a bit to catch rats. Rats trap best when the trap is next to invisible, as in part or fully buried, and also fully weathered. If the traps are fairly new, take them out of the tunnels for a few weeks to allow the weather to get at them to remove the shine and any smells. A wooden tunnel will be fine if you don’t have the time to dig in permanent ones. Make it look as appealing as you can by adding topsoil at the entrances and making a ‘run’ either side of it and leading into it. Make sure you use excluders on the outside, as per best practice guidelines. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently catch the very things you are trying to feed.

Tunnel traps

Grey squirrels are relatively easy to trap, and the traps don’t have to be particularly well disguised

Traps for squirrels

Grey squirrels trap quite easily. They don’t need a particularly well-built or disguised tunnel like stoats or rats do and they enter them quite freely, out of a combination of curiosity and a need to keep themselves hidden from potential predators.

Tunnel traps

If you are using cage traps that capture live quarry, you must carry an air pistol for humane despatch

Cage Traps

Cage traps have their place but do take more time to set. Because whatever you catch is alive, it takes longer to get round them, despatch what’s caught, rebait and reset them. Moreover, there are bound to be times when you are passing a cage trap, see that it has caught something and have to head back home because you don’t have an air pistol to shoot whatever it is at close range or a bag in which to bolt it, to despatch it.