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Wildlife crime - Frequently Asked Questions

Warning sign - yellow and blackWhat can I do if I suspect that a wildlife crime is taking place?

Wildlife crime can take many forms. It may be that you suspect that someone is trading illegally in plants or animals, collecting birds' eggs, or setting out poisoned baits for wildlife.

All suspected crimes should be reported to the police

How to report a wildlife crime >>

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Snare thumbnailAre snares legal?

Yes. Snaring rabbits and foxes is legal and carried out regularly. Snaring brown hares is also legal though carried out less often.

However, certain conditions must be met for the snaring to be legal:

  • Snares must be checked at intervals of not more than 24 hours.
  • Snares must have stops set at a prescribed distance from the end to prevent the animal suffocating.
  • Snares must not be set where the animal caught is likely to be fully or partially suspended or drowned.
  • Snares which can be dragged are illegal.
  • Any animal caught must be removed at each check.
  • Snares must not be self-locking.

Read the industry advice on snaring >>

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What type of traps can be used to catch mammals?

The main type of trap legally used to catch mammals is called a tunnel trap.

As its name suggests this is a trap - usually a spring trap - set in a tunnel and normally used for catching stoats, weasels, rats and grey squirrels. A slightly larger trap can legally be used to catch these species plus rabbits and mink.

Read the full list of spring traps approved for use in Scotland >>

Tunnel entrances must only be large enough to allow access to the largest of the target species- this method prevents larger, non-target species being caught.

This trap must never be set in the open or set to catch birds.

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What should I do if I suspect a trap or a snare is being used illegally?

All suspected crimes should be reported to the police.

How to report a wildlife crime >>

If you are not sure that an offence is being committed you may wish to ask to speak to a Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO) when you call the police.

Don't interfere with traps or snares. If you do, you could be the one answering to the law.

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Osprey thumbnailWhat traps may legally be used to catch birds?

There are two types of live-catch cages permitted by the Scottish General Licences - for use in specific circumstances for specific reasons.

The smaller of these, called a Larsen trap, has two or three compartments and is small enough to be transported. Its largest compartment is for holding either bait or a live bird to act as a decoy. The other one or two compartments are for catching the birds - usually members of the same species - enticed into the trap.

The larger 'crow cage', often referred to as a ladder trap or funnel trap, is often about 4mx4mx3m and usually also used with a corvid (members of the crow family) as a decoy bird.

Both traps must be checked daily at which time birds caught must be removed and any non-target species released unharmed.

Before using a Larsen trap or crow cage the operator must have read and understood the appropriate Scottish General Licence.

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Which birds can be used as 'call birds' or 'decoy' birds in legal bird traps?

Which birds can be used in legal traps depends on the purpose for which the trap is set. Lists are included in the terms of the Scottish General Licences.

All decoy birds or call birds must have sufficient food, water, shelter and a perch.

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Can wild birds be shot legally?

Yes - in some specific circumstances for specific reasons. Although all wild birds are protected, a small number of species can be shot in circumstances outlined by the Scottish General Licences.

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Is it legal to keep a collection of wild birds' eggs?

No - unless the eggs were taken before 1954. It is up to the person in possession of the eggs to show that they were taken before that date.

It is an offence to take the eggs of any wild bird or to sell any wild bird's egg, no matter when the egg was collected.

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Do any precautions need to be taken before a tree or a bush is cut down?

Yes. During spring or summer birds may well be nesting. It is an offence to kill a bird or damage a nest while it is in use - whether this is done intentionally or recklessly.

To avoid any risk of committing an offence, trees and bushes should be checked for active nests so far as this can reasonably be done from the ground. .

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Hare thumbnailIs it legal to chase hares with dogs?

No. It is illegal to chase hares with a dog or dogs and also to search for them for this purpose. It is important to report this type of incident to the police as soon as possible as those involved tend to leave the area within a short time. If a vehicle registration number can also be obtained it can be of great benefit to an investigation.

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Toxic - thumbnailWhat should I do if I find a dead animal or bird in the countryside and I think it has been poisoned?

Most pesticides used to kill wildlife are extremely toxic to humans as well as animals or birds.

Anything suspected to be bait or the victim of poisoned bait should not be touched.

All suspected crimes should be reported to the police

How to report a wildlife crime >>

If you are not sure if an offence is being committed you may wish to ask to speak to a Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO) when you call the police.

Though pesticide abuse still occurs, it must be borne in mind that many animals or birds die of natural causes or due to accidents. If you speak to a WCO they are likely to ask questions to try and determine whether the death is suspicious or not.

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Freshwater pearl mussel thumbnailIs it legal to open freshwater pearl mussels to see if there is a pearl inside?

No. Freshwater pearl mussels are completely protected and it is an offence even to lift them off the river bed.

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Is it legal to buy freshwater pearls?

It is legal to possess freshwater pearls but it is the responsibility of the individual to demonstrate the pearl(s) were obtained legally. For example if the person can show that they were taken before 1991 when harvesting them became illegal.

It is an offence to sell the pearls unless the seller has a licence to do so. There are currently just two jewellers in Scotland licensed to deal in items containing freshwater pearls. Other traders can obtain licences to sell freshwater pearls under certain circumstances - in this case a licence must be obtained for each item before it can be sold.

More information on freshwater pearl mussel crime >>

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BadgersIs it legal to keep a dead bird or animal killed on the road and have it stuffed?

In general it is an offence to possess a dead bird or a dead protected animal (for example a badger or pine marten - as opposed to a rabbit or hare which can legitimately be taken or killed).

There is an exception to this if the person in possession of the protected animal or bird can show that it died or was killed other than as a result of a crime committed against it. Road traffic victims would fall in to this category and could legally be kept and used in taxidermy. To be on the safe side it may be worth having the animal or bird examined by a vet (though they may not always be able to tell how it died without a post mortem) or reporting the find to a Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO).

After 15 February 2007 dead otters and wildcats may not be taken for taxidermy. Any already in someone's possession and taken after 10 June 1994 must be registered with the Scottish Government.

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Bluebell thumbnailIs it legal to dig up wild plants?

All plants on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 are protected. These are the rarest plants, such as some wild orchids, and it is an offence even to pick such a plant.

More common plants, such as bluebells, snowdrops and primroses may be dug up, provided the landowner has given permission, though it is an offence to engage in any commercial trade in wild bluebells.

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BatsIf I have bats in my loft what should I do?

In most cases bats and their human hosts live in harmony. It would do no harm to report their presence to either Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) or to a member of a bat group for their records as the bats may be one of the rarer species.

Bats mostly come into lofts to breed during the summer and leave again in autumn. If they pose problems during this time direct action must not be taken against them but contact made with SNH for advice.

Like the otter and the Scottish wildcat, all UK species of bats are European Protected Species (EPS) and have full protection under the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994.

More information on bat crime >>

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logo - Grampian Police - thumbnailWhat is a police wildlife crime officer?

Wildlife Crime Officers (WCOs) are officers designated to deal with - or advise on - all aspects of crime being committed against wildlife in the UK.

This can range from illegal trade in endangered species to crimes committed against indigenous birds and mammals - not forgetting certain plants, insects, fish, shellfish and crustaceans.

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Does this specialist role only cover crime against wildlife?

This depends on the police force - some forces include responsibility for other environmental crimes in the WCOs' role and others include wider rural crimes issues.

Generally WCOs ensure that offences relating to poaching, cruelty to wild animals and offences against the environment are properly dealt with. They can also advise landowners, farmers and gamekeepers of the best course of action to obtain sufficient evidence for a poaching (or hare coursing) case to succeed in court.

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How can police officers cope with such a diverse range of crimes?

Though WCOs receive considerable specialised training, they still cannot be expected to be experts in all fields of wildlife, animal or environmental crime.

To ensure the best possible response to wildlife crimes in Scotland, WCOs can draw on the support of an extensive network of government and non-government organisations - almost all of them PAW Scotland partners. The fact that they can draw on this help and advice means that many investigations into wildlife or environmental crimes take full advantage of available expertise by involving more than one agency.

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