Court: RSPB accused of breaching welfare guidelines while investigating farmer

The RSPB failed to live up to its name by allowing the trapping of birds of prey to continue while the investigators bagged a national figure in British game shooting, a court heard.

Michael Wood went on trial today accused of allowing traps “big enough to kill a mink” to protect his pheasants and partridges on his Yorkshire farm from birds of prey.

But it was also claimed the RSPB must have been aware Wood was Chairman of the Game Farmers’ Association - and it had breached its own animal welfare code to prosecute him.

The two farm workers who actually set the traps have been let off with cautions by police but Wood was said to have driven past the devices in the dark. The court heard that investigators decided to leave the traps in place to continue their investigation – which Wood also claimed had led to the deaths of 220 of his stock.

Wood, 69, ‎who lives in a Grade Two listed manor house near York, passed two of the traps on his farm near Pickering and must have known they were there, it was claimed.

Eventually, five traps were found on Westfield Farm at Cropton following a two day stake-out by the RSPB of the pens used to breed game birds for the gun using intensive farming.

Prosecutor Martin Hawes told Scarborough Magistrates two employees, John Sellers and Richard Hodgson, who had set up the traps had been dealt with separately.

He continued: “‎Mr Wood owned and managed the farm.

“The Crown’s case is he must have known these traps were there and that he knowingly promoted their use.

“Mr Wood’s case is he did not know they were being used and the two members of staff involved were on a frolic of their own.

“The Crown say he drove past two of them and they would have been apparent to him.”

Senior RSPB investigator Guy Shorrock said he arrived at the farm on June 10 last year to follow up an initial report.

Mr Shorrock went down the lane from the village to the corner of a corn field where he had a view of the rearing pens for the game birds 320 metres away.

He and a colleague Howard Jones kept the site under observation with a telescope and binoculars and set up a covert video camera in a hedge, the trial was told.

Mr Shorrock said the trapping method had been outlawed for years.

It involved placing a rat trap on a platform on top of an elevated pole which would be attractive to birds of prey to perch on.

The rat trap was usually attached to the platform with twine or wire and once the bird was caught it usually fell off the perch in the trap, it was said.

Because the rat trap was secured to the platform it meant the bird could not fly off.

But the trap would then fall off and the trapped bird might not be noticed for some time, the court heard.

Mr Shorrock was taking some photographs of the traps when Wood drove up behind him in a corner of a field, the magistrates were told.

The investigator gave a false name and claimed he was looking for hares to photograph.

But Wood was suspicious and the investigators quickly packed up their equipment on a nearby hill, leaving the secret camera running, the court heard.

The following morning they alerted police and began a systematic search of the farm with an officer from Malton Police Station. They found ‎five traps tied to the side of the rearing pens, two of which the investigators had been aware of. Three were standard size but two were slightly larger and “large enough to kill something as big as a mink,” Mr Shorrock added.

Defending solicitor Richard Atkins suggested Mr Shorrock must have known of Wood’s position as Chairman of the Association, the trade body for breeders who supply the field sports industry, and should not have let the traps remain after seeing his employees setting them.

He added: “The very name of the charity is the protection of birds. You left traps in situ. Is that a contradiction in the aims of the Society?”

But Mr Shorrock said he was helping tackle a national problem and “needed to send a deterrent message as part of the big picture”.

Wood had complained to North Yorkshire Police professional standards, blaming the RSPB for the death of 220 young fowls in a shed during the on-site investigations.

But the court heard that the investigators had been cleared by the police investigation. Wood, of Manor House, Sinnington, York, denies an offence of permitting the use of a spring trap on June 11. Under cross examination, Mr Shorrock denied knowing Wood was Chairman of the Association and said both he and the RSPB were “neutral” on the issue of shooting birds and intensive rearing.

Mr Shorrock claimed his photos showed the lighting conditions at the time but Mr Atkins claimed they had been enhanced and did not show what Wood could have seen because it was too dark.

The court heard it was already sunset when the two men’s paths crossed and the photos were taken before sunrise.

“I am not suggesting you deliberately doctored them but they do not represent what you would see in the field,” he told Mr Shorrock.

The trial, expected to last two days, continues.