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Why trapping is an effective tool in wildlife management for airgun shooters

Trapping is an effective wildlife management tool, and Pete Brookes explains how airgun shooters can use these devices ethically


Cage traps can be purchased online and from agricultural stores, but make sure to buy the appropriate size for the type of pest you’re targeting

In the sphere of wildlife management it’s always beneficial to go about it with a diversity of methods. Whatever approach you initially set out with there is a good chance your target quarry will soon clock on to what is happening around them.

In Britain we have several invasive species that have thrived since their release from captivity over the last few centuries, notably the grey squirrel, muntjac and sika deer. Not all non-native species do succeed following their liberation. As recently as 2009 wallabies were sighted within the Staffordshire Moorlands, descendants of five escapees from a local wildlife park in the 1930s, but now believed gone for a variety of reasons. Unless animals adapt to their environment and the human populations around them, they will not survive.

The grey squirrel is a survivor, and under sustained persecution since its arrival on these shores from its native North America it has adapted and prospered to a UK population believed to exceed 2.5 million.

It certainly is no dumb creature, so will soon clock something is not right when the same method of control is tried repeatedly.Therefore besides the trusty air rifle, other alternative methods of control are worth contemplating to lower the grey population in woodlands and, where appropriate, within residential gardens.


Any trapped squirrels are immobilised with a metal comb, then humanely killed with a shot to the back of the head – Pete prefers a pistol for this


The catch

For the keen airgun hunter, it might be worth considering the use of traps on their permission, with the landowner’s consent, which will equip them with a valuable skill to use within their wildlife management remit. In areas where red squirrels are present, live trapping is the ONLY method to be used, and although there are no reds where I live within Staffordshire, live cage trapping with humane dispatch is my own preferred method of removal.

If you are live-trapping on a large scale, be it forestry protection or red squirrel conservation, then you will be working a larger and transient area with multiple trapping lines spread out within defined and designated boundaries. If it is more local grey control around pheasant feeders or farm grain stores, then it will be a handful of cages in noted areas of recent grey activity. That last point is worth heeding and concerns all persons involved in any form of trapping whatever the scale of operation.

Gone are the days of throwing traps out in large numbers indiscriminately and hoping for the best.

Not only is this an inefficient use of time, but it greatly increases the problematic risk of capturing non-target species.

Cage traps can be purchased online and from agricultural-type stores. Varying sizes are available targeting rat, squirrel, rabbit, mink, fox and even feral cat. Go for the one that is designed for the specific quarry, and in the case of the grey the smaller size that allows you to disguise it as a tunnel-type structure to draw the squirrel’s curiosity. It is your responsibility to make sure that all traps and cages that you use are legally approved for the use of trapping grey squirrels, although in most instances where cages are openly sold that is not usually a problem.


Be responsible

You do not need a licence to use an approved trap to control greys, but you are quite rightly obliged under a variety of wildlife legislation for the wellbeing of any captured animals of whatever species. I remember The Shooting Times reporting on the RSPB coming under the spotlight when spring traps set by the organisation on the Orkney Isles protecting ground-nesting birds were left unchecked, until found later with decomposing bodies of stoats still in situ.

There is no actual obligation by law to check traps, but the guidelines and recommendation of at least one physical check per day, more if weather conditions dictate, is there to ensure the relevant wildlife protection legislation is adhered to concerning trapped animals in both lethal and non-lethal traps.

In all fairness to the RSPB, credit to them for taking a positive management attitude to protecting ground-nesting birds, and the occurrence did happen in the midst of the confusion of the Covid 19 pandemic, but it’s nevertheless surely a lesson for us all.

Where live traps are set, it may take a couple of days to find a suitable location where you have confirmed greys are present. If you aim to consecutively trap a larger established population over a wider area, then you may need to pre-bait the traps before setting them. If it is just a handful around game feeders or buildings, then generally I just scatter a little bait straight away in and around the traps as the grey will already be drawn into the area, aware of the local food supply.

Place the trap on ground level or in branches. To avoid smaller rodents taking bait off a ground-level cage it might be worth raising it slightly, which will hopefully prevent the entry of mice or voles, although any rats taking the bait caught in the trap would be a bonus. Remember, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA81) as an invasive species it is illegal to release a grey back into the wild following capture.

In the case of a captured brown rat its liberty is at your discretion, although why you would allow Mr Rat his unconditional freedom would puzzle me!

A trap can be a vital tool for any airgun shooter who’s been tasked with controlling invasive grey squirrels on their permission

Literature on the subject puts between March and September as the optimum time to set live traps as the greys’ natural woodland food supply will be at its lowest during that period, although they can be used effectively around farms and gardens all year round. Remember, one visit to the trap every 24 hours to adhere to legislation, but in the event of adverse conditions consider a second visit, preferably as late as possible in the day. If in doubt, then remove or disable any trap to prevent captured animals being in the cage overnight, particularly when temperatures are low.

The cage must be protected from the wind and rain whatever the time of year, and although you can purchase readymade camo covers, using waterproof sacking and local vegetation is more than adequate and will additionally offer protection from inquisitive predators such as foxes. Any trapped species must have adequate access to food and water while inside the cage, and I do know that some wildlife trusts using traps on red squirrel projects throw in a piece of apple to compensate for the required moisture.

Concealment of the trap will also offer some safeguard from two-legged human curiosity, and you can get actual signage to fix to the trap reminding people that the use of the trap is legal and tampering with such and the release of a grey from the trap may constitute an offence under WCA81.


End of the line

The business end of the live trapping concerning the airgun hunter comes into effect with the dispatch of the captured grey. The handling of a longer-barreled air rifle makes it awkward to use through the bars of the cage, so an air pistol is more suitable, provided the projectile is discharged at close range and is powerful enough to enter the grey’s skull at around the 3 ft-Ib mark.

Prior to dispatch, the grey will need to be immobilised by use of metal combs which retain the animal in a static position at one end of the cage to allow placement of the shot into the back of the head.

Apart from cranial dispatch (a single effective strike to the back of the head) no other form of killing is permitted, so do not even consider drowning, gassing, or other non-authorised methods.

However well-sited a trap may be, the most important things are to provide any trapped animal with access to water and for you to visit it regularly

When dealing with caged vermin I do tend to wear gloves to prevent my fingers being inadvertently nipped, and I will wear some type of eye protection when taking the shot to prevent any unwanted contamination of unpleasant animal parts or body fluid.

Having worked with deer wardens at the scene of deer road casualties and the animals’ subsequent humane dispatch with a projectile into the head, nonetheless proportionate in species size and calibre, it can still be very messy.

For a fee, organisations such as the GWCT and BASC will run one-day training courses on lethal and non-lethal trapping, covering the legislation and best practice, so it might be of value to try getting together with other interested parties in your area and arranging for one of these organisations to run such an event.

If you control greys only on a small scale, it might also be worth several participants collectively purchasing one trap each to then use on individual permissions to keep costs down, although red squirrel groups do offer a free trap-lending scheme under certain guidelines.

Trapping is a complementary method to grey squirrel control in conjunction with the coordinated use of air rifles, and offers another interesting avenue of effective wildlife management to explore. Cooperatively it can be undertaken at low cost, but that joint action potentially will have a positive effect in reducing grey squirrels within your own geographical area.