As distressing as finding wild birds trapped in a cage may be for many of us (birders and non-birders alike), the use of live-catch traps is legal – but only under strict conditions and (despite how it may sometimes appear) not simply because the operator ‘doesn’t like crows‘.

If even one of the conditions listed below are not being met then the trap is being used illegally and a crime is being committed.
Two types of live-catch cages are widely used by gamekeepers and the shooting industry: Larsen traps and Crow (including Ladder) traps. Under current legislation neither type has to conform to any minimum/maximum size or volume limits.

  • Larsen traps are the smaller of the two and are small enough to be moved around and used in different locations. They have two or three (sometimes more) compartments. The largest compartment is for holding either bait or a live bird to act as a decoy. The other compartment(s) is for catching the birds enticed into the trap.
  • Crow/Ladder traps come in a variety of shapes and sizes but are usually fixed, solid structures that are mainly used to catch Carrion Crows, Rooks, Magpies, and Jackdaws.

red crossIt is illegal to use live-catch traps to catch any protected bird – which includes any species of raptor – and illegal for the operator not to release a so-called ‘non target’ bird immediately.

Wild birds and other wild animals are considered to be under an operator’s control if they are in a trap and are therefore protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Please note that it is an offence to tamper with a legal trap, but if you have any doubts or concerns about a trap you’ve found then make enquiries with one of the organisations or authorities listed below for clarification (or contact us and we will try to answer any questions).

(For a very readable guide to legal vs illegal traps go to from where our feature image of a legal trap was taken.)



Let’s help tackle the illegal use of Live-catch Traps


The use of live-catch traps is regulated by Open General Licences issued under section 16 of The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. A General Licence does not have to be applied for or registered – any landowner (or operator that has the landowners permission) may legally operate such a trap providing the conditions listed below are followed. It is the legal responsibility of the operator to ensure that they are aware of the current licence conditions.

Separate licences are issued by Natural England (NE), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) but again individual operators do not need to apply for these. Licences are issued for only a year at a time.


Decoy Birds

Cage traps usually hold a decoy bird, used to attract other birds to the cage. In England and Wales current law (2014) says that ONLY the following species are allowed to be used as decoys:

  • Carrion Crow Corvus corone
  • Jackdaw Corvus monedula
  • Jay Garrulus glandarius (NB a Jay may never be used in Scotland)
  • Magpie Pica pica
  • Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus (considered a non-native species)
  • Ring-necked Parakeet Psittacula krameri (considered a non-native species)
  • Rook Corvus frugilegus
  • In Scotland Hooded Crows Corone cornix may be used as well.

red crossIt is illegal to use ANY other bird species as a decoy. Note feral pigeons are sometimes used to attract birds of prey: this is illegal.

red crossIt is illegal to use a sound recording as a decoy.


The welfare of decoy birds is well-covered by law. If any of the following conditions are not being met then the trap is being operated illegally:

  • suitable food must be readily accessible
  • clean drinkable water must be available all of the time
  • there must be shelter which protects the bird from prevailing weather conditions
  • there must be a perch placed under the shelter
  • no decoy bird can be left in a trap when the trap is not in use
  • operators can not use any live bird or animal which is tethered, or secured by means of braces or other similar appliances, or is blind, maimed or injured.


Operation of the trap

The law is clear on how a live-catch trap must be operated

  • Every trap must be physically inspected at least once every day at intervals of no more than 24 hours – and the inspection must be sufficient to determine whether there are any live or dead birds or other animals in the trap (so eg not a quick glance from a vehicle parked at a distance from the trap)
  • ALL Non-target species caught in a Larsen or Cage trap must be released UNHARMED immediately upon discovery.
  • At each inspection any dead animal, including any dead bird, caught in the trap should be removed from it.
  • Any birds killed in accordance with the general licences must be killed in a quick and humane manner (in Wales the general licences require that any bird held captive before being killed must be killed out of sight of other captive birds). In England a separate licence issued by Natural England is required to shoot a trapped bird.
  • In Scotland each trap must carry a sign that gives the operator’s ID number and the number of the local police station or the Wildlife Crime Officer for the area.

Additionally it is an offence

red cross

  • to keep or confine any bird in any cage or receptacle which is not sufficient in height, length or breadth to permit the bird to stretch its wings freely.

red cross

  • to set a trap in a position which is calculated to cause bodily injury to any wild bird coming into contact with it.


When a live-catch trap is not in use

The law is clear on how a trap must be secured or immobilised when not in use

  • In Scotland when any trap is not in use it must be immobilised and rendered incapable of use. When any multi-catch cage trap is not in use access doors must be removed or securely padlocked so that no bird can be confined. Any other traps, when not in use, must be rendered incapable of catching any birds or animals by either removing from the site or securing shut with a padlock. Any Larsen mate or Larsen pod trap must be firmly pegged or staked down or tethered prior to use so that it cannot be moved should a non-target animal be caught.
  • In Wales when any cage trap is not in use it must be immobilised and rendered incapable of use in such a way that the immobilisation could not be reversed without considerable foresight and difficulty. In order to render any cage traps incapable of holding or catching birds or other animals, it’s necessary to either secure the door in a fully open or closed position, secured with a padlock, or to remove the door completely. When any Larsen trap is not in use, it shall be removed from site and stored in such a manner as to prevent its accidental use.
  • In England when a live-catch trap is not in use it must be rendered incapable of holding or catching birds or other animals. Any bait, food, water or decoy birds must also be removed.




Remember that it is legal to use a Larsen or Cage trap. You may commit an offence yourself if you enter private land without permission to examine one or tamper with a legal trap (NB: there is ‘right to roam’ in Scotland but please note comments below about how evidence obtained by members of the public may not be admissible unless the police are involved from the outset.)

If a trap is being used illegally and it is safe to do so:

  • Make a note of the date and time and take photographs or video of the scene using a mobile phone or camera etc (or make as accurate a sketch as possible).
  • Note the location of the trap as accurately as possible, preferably using a grid reference (free smartphone apps are widely available). If the crime is in an urban area note the address or any other recognisable description of the location.
  • If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. Imagine we were trying to find the same site again – what information might we need?
  • Photograph any vehicle registration numbers that are or might be related to the incident. Even if we’re not sure whether the vehicle is involved or not it is legal to record a registration number if we suspect that the vehicle has been or may be used in a crime. The number may well be useful to the authorities in the future and help build up a more complete picture of eg an egg collector’s movements.
  • If you see someone committing a crime related to use of a live-catch trap – and if it is safe to do so – take as many photographs as you can. Recording the offender’s face is important of course, but their clothing, the bags they’re carrying, the equipment they’re using are all important too.
    Do NOT try to get too close – taking some long-distance images is better than having a camera smashed or being attacked and hurt.



  • If you find a trap that is being operated illegally call 101 and ask to speak to a wildlife crime officer. Give details as requested, and ask for a crime reference number. If you prefer you can call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

If there is a non-target species trapped in the cage (particularly if the species is protected) an extra option is to also call an animal welfare charity:

  • Contact the RSPB and ask to speak to an Investigations Officer
  • England and Wales – RSPCA Cruelty line 0300 1234 999
  • Scotland – Scottish SPCA Animal Helpline 03000 999 999
  • Northern Ireland – USPCA Animal Information Line 028 3025 1000, caller ID required


Page updated October 2014.

Do you have any comments, additions, or corrections? Please let us know.


  1. David C, Inverness
    April 29, 2014

    From my original posting I have asked a fellow veteran birder about this and have been advised that it is quite possible that there may be a ‘camera trap’ located nearby to the crow trap (for monitoring purposes).
    If I were to take it upon myself to check the trap for a licence number, to see if food is available for the live decoy bird(s) or indeed to witness a wildlife crime I would need to think/tread carefully. Stealth clothing might be required !
    I also understand that gamekeepers on the Cawdor Estate (as this one is) have in the past been intimidatory towards the RSPB investigating reports of illegal trapping.

  2. admin
    April 26, 2014

    We checked on this with Alan Stewart, of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, who has been a great help in helping us understand legislation in Scotland.

    His answer makes very interesting reading, and the following is an amalgamation of several emails (and references our approach of being ‘Vigilant, not vigilantes)’:

    – There is a right to roam in Scotland enshrined in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 1993 (there was a common law right even before that). A person can in theory go on to land specifically to check a Larsen or other trap but if an offence is discovered and that person then reports it to the police his/her evidence may not be accepted by the court. It is a police role to enter land to gain evidence of an offence, not that of a member of the public. If a person is accessing land and happens, in the course of his/her other activity to encounter a wildlife crime and reports it to the police (ie is just being vigilant), the evidence will be accepted in the court. Courts in Scotland seem not to want members of the public to be taking on a policing (vigilante) role. There have been exceptions but the policy seems to be against this.

  3. Charles
    April 25, 2014

    We have “Right to Roam” land access in Scotland, a close inspection could have been made perhaps ?

    • admin
      April 25, 2014

      Charles, thanks for that information. We’ll get that checked, as a quick read-through of your link suggests that using that right to look at a trap shouldn’t be a problem: though whether the landowner might be able to point to “Land developed and in use for recreation and where the exercise of access rights would interfere with such use”. We’ll update as soon as we know. Thanks again

      • Charles
        April 25, 2014

        With the exception of private house gardens, you can walk across any where in Scotland, especially grouse moors and have a jolly good poke around looking for any signs of raptor persecution. I would highly recommend it and dont be intimidated !

  4. admin
    April 24, 2014

    Hi David

    Cage traps of all sorts are legal provided the rules are followed as we outline them above. They are – surprisingly – geared towards the welfare of the decoy birds (surprisingly, given that they are used to catch and kill large numbers of birds!) and if they are being operated legally then that’s pretty much the end of the matter.
    You certainly did the right thing not entering private land. No matter the temptation that will only land you in trouble. The licence tag should be quite prominent – a zoomed in digital photo should at least show if one is present – but of course the details would be illegible. It’s very difficult indeed from a distance to prove either way whether an operator has attached a proper tag to a cage I’m afraid.
    Legally speaking it would be more clearcut if eg a Buzzard was trapped, or there was no shelter provided for the decoy bird, but if the trap appeared to be operated legally then there is no further action anyone can take until these traps are made illegal (which is just not likely to happen anytime soon).
    We really can’t comment on individual estates (much as we might or might not like to) in cases like this as that may open us to legal challenges.
    Sorry we can’t be more definitive, but unless you can get a really good view of a trap it is not always easy to state whether its being operated legally or not just based on whether it has a tag or not.

  5. David C, Inverness
    April 24, 2014

    Last weekend I was walking with a friend along part of the River Findhorn between Ruthven and Dulsie Bridge. Along the walk I came across a ladder or Crow trap located on a large flat area adjacent to the River near Ballachrochin.
    The trap contained two live Carrion crows and I photographed these at some distance away (trying to avoid entering private land). I have reported this to the group Against Corvid Traps (ACT) stating the grid reference. I have also reported this to RSPB Highland office and have not received a reply from either organisation.
    I understand that this trap may be legal, but I was not close enough to see if there was a licence number on it? I also understand that the estate land is owned by Cawdor Estate whom I believe have had several incidents involving traps on their estate lands.
    I would be interested to hear of your advice on this matter.


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