When Larsen Traps were first introduced to this country by Game Conservancy, wildlife expert John Bryant revealed the systematic slaughter of nesting magpies and how the shooting lobby managed to bypass bird welfare standards, here is his article:

Britain’s game-bird shooting fraternity have embarked on the systematic slaughter of Magpies leaving tens of thousands of their chicks slowly dying of starvation in their nests.

The Government has connived with the shooting fraternity in this appalling cruel and illegal massacre. The European Bird Directive 79/409/EEC forbids the killing of any bird, (regardless of its “pest” status) during the nesting season. The European conservation laws include this small humanitarian gesture in order to reduce the disturbance of protected species by shotguns and to ensure that young dependent chicks do not die slowly while they vainly await the return of their slaughtered parents.

However, in September 1991 at the request of the shooting fraternity who consider Magpies and other members of the Crow family to be vermin, the Government issued a ‘general licence’ for the trapping of Magpies and Crows in Larsen Traps at any time. These traps were invented by a Danish game-keeper in the 1950s but were revived and promoted by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (at the time called Game Conservancy) – a charity dedicated to the preservation of game-birds as living targets for the bloodsport set.

European Bird Directives and our own Wildlife and Countryside Act both forbid the keeping of wild birds in captivity and the use of live decoys as bait to take and kill and other wildlife. However the shooting fraternity and their gamekeepers found an anomaly in the law to enable them to massacre Magpies and where loop-holes don’t exist they have persuaded the Government to grant them licences to overcome the risk of prosecution. For instance the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it a criminal offence to use a live decoy of any kind to take and kill wild animals. However, a ridiculous anomaly in the Act permits live decoys to be used to take wild birds. Recognising that bird protectionists might be tempted to prosecute to expose the eccentricity of the law, the Government provided a general licence to allow live decoys to be kept in cages.

The shooting lobby were also canny enough to realise that keeping a wild bird in captivity as a decoy could also result in prosecution under the Protection of Animals Act for ‘causing unnecessary suffering’ to the unfortunate decoy or ‘call-bird’. Thus the licence conditions include insistence that the decoy must be provided with food and water and checked at least once every 24 hours. This effectively vents the possibility of a prosecution for ‘neglect’ – it being notoriously difficult to prove to the satisfaction of a court that animals or birds suffer ‘mental distress’.

However, there is no doubt that the captive call birds do suffer stress – not only from being caged and from continually being harassed by other birds intent on attack, but also when the keeper returns to extract the squawking birds for slaughter. Game-keepers, of course, know full well that the decoy bird does suffer from its captivity. In Shooting News, 13th March 1992, game-keeper Tony Reed, in an article on promoting Larsen Traps, wrote,

“Call birds will also need replacing every so often. After a while the resident bird tends to become listless and prone to sitting huddled up on its perch. For a call bird to work properly it needs to remain active in order to attract the attention of others of its kind.”

Reports of captive birds being found dead in its cage by a member of the public are not uncommon and animal welfare groups receive calls from people who have found the traps and who cannot believe that such cruelty is legal.

For this very reason the shooting media advisers all trappers to locate their traps well away from public sights. Tony Read writes,

“The do-gooders’, once again ill-informed in country ways, may sometimes take it upon himself to act unlawfully. This type should never be given a reason to stray from a public footpath. A Larsen Trap should not be sited in a position where it may be seen from such a footpath or bridleway.”

But the cynicism does not end there. For the shooting press and provincial newspapers have published hundreds of anti-Magpie articles and letters. There have been calls for national Magpie-killing days and the birds have been accused of wiping out song-birds in large areas all over the country. All this hype has obviously been a concerted campaign to soften up the bird-loving public so that there would be no great outcry against the Larsen-trap slaughter.

It is true that the Magpie population has been increasing over recent years. Recent and welcome reforms in farming practices are helping Magpies and there are fewer game-keepers around than in previous decades due to the moral and financial pressures on shooting. Shooters who traditionally despise any creature that dares takes a pheasant chick or egg, felt that the remaining game-keepers should be given new weapons of mass destruction to make up for the loss of man-power – but the introduction of such methods would require ignoring European standards of wildlife protection and bending British laws. So the campaign has been aimed at persuading the bird-loving public that Magpies are vermin, that they are wiping out popular and innocent song-birds and that if their population is allowed to grow any further, we will never hear another robin, black-bird or thrush sing again. The message has been accepted by many. They have noticed the return of magpies to their garden. Some have witnessed them raiding the nests of song-birds and as often happens every such story has been exaggerated and repeated by a factor of at least ten!

The fact that the anti-Magpie hysteria does not stand up to scientific investigation has counted for little. Once a myth gets ingrained in the public consciousness, it is difficult to counter. But the facts are clear, Magpies are not ‘vermin’ – the term merely being an invention of the bloodsports set anyway. The real bird experts, such as the RSPB and the British Trust of Ornithology deny magpies are a threat to song-bird populations.

The BTO points to research published in The Journal of Applied Ecology (1991,28: 1068-1086) by scientists Steve Gooch, Stephen Baillie and Tim Birkhead. They compared Magpie information and that from 15 songbirds in four different regions in England and by different habitats. In no case were there changes indicating that increasing Magpies led to decreases in nest success or numbers of songbirds. The BTO announced, “Thus for the country as a whole, Magpies have received a NOT GUILTY verdict.”

Summer Magpie diet comprises 70% invertebrates, and over 70% plant matter in winter with only a minority of gizzards or faecal samples containing traces of birds or eggs. Further research in 1987 showed that systematic and successful Magpie predation of nests of garden songbirds only occurs when such birds breed at high densities.

So the colourful and intelligent Magpie is yet, another species of wildlife suffering and dying in huge numbers due to ignorance and a carefully orchestrated campaign by vested interests, ie the bloodsport enthusiast.

Published: Wildlife Guardian, Issue 21, Summer 1992