Keep your trap shut

a history of traps with Maggie Chaplin
Humane rodent trap

A man trap warning noticeA furtive dark clad figure creeps through the undergrowth. His eyes are accustomed to the night and he’s alert to the slightest sound. He’s on a risky mission, intent on bagging a few brace of pheasant to feed his family, and maybe to sell, no questions asked, to a neighbour. He moves forward one cautious step at a time, till his foot touches something metal under the leaves and moss. There’s a sudden vicious snap and his agonized scream pierces the still air. The poacher has been caught in a mantrap and he’s probably been maimed for life.

For centuries man has sought to capture other living things. For our primitive forebears it was essential for survival. Neolithic man would collect plants and seeds and berries to eat, but he needed meat as well. Mammals, birds and fish could be caught by hunting, but that was a time-consuming, tiring pursuit that needed special skill. How much easier if you could somehow immobilize your prey to be picked up at your leisure. So the ancient hunters developed hidden snares, crude nets and concealed pits to capture animals that were either useful to them, or posed a threat, or both.

Our Neolithic ancestors didn’t catch animals solely for food. They used their pelts and skins as clothing and in construction of shelters to keep themselves warm and dry. In our modern, centrally-heated lives it’s sometimes hard to appreciate that protection from the elements was sometimes just as important for survival as finding the next meal.

As well as having to pit his wits against wild animals, some of whom would present a real danger as well as a potential food source, early man also had to cope with the possibility of attack by human aggressors. He almost certainly set mantraps to defend his settlement.

Mantraps became popular in Britain in the latter half of the 18th century, not against the threat of assault, but to deter poachers. There was a great interest in game sports, and stock raised for shooting was easy prey for poachers, who usually struck under the cover of darkness and who became adept at dodging gamekeepers.

These traps for capturing unwary trespassers were brutal devices made of iron that would typically have sprung jaws, sometimes up to 19 inches in length, and were equipped with vicious jagged teeth that would clamp tight shut on a man’s leg causing irreparable damage. The trap was set on a heavy metal bar that was hidden in the undergrowth and the step plate that triggered the trap had tiny spikes to hold moss and leaves in place to cover it.

A mole trap (left) and a rabbit trapA nod towards compassion for the hapless malefactor was the legal requirement to post warning notices on the boundaries of private land where traps had been set. Unfortunately for potential poachers, many of them couldn’t read.

Amazingly the use of these devices on your estate continued to be legal for the greater part of 100 years, until in 1827 an Act was passed to ban the setting on your land of any “engine calculated to do grievous bodily harm”. The toothed versions were replaced by so-called “humane” traps that were devoid of teeth, but worked on a similar principle and had a pair of metal hoops or bars that grasped the leg. These too gradually went out of use. Too often it seems they caught unintended victims, including occasionally the landowner himself or a member of his family or an employee.

Nowadays keepers are more likely to set traps for four-legged game thieves, and control of predators and pests is an essential part of farming and game management, but the practice is strictly controlled. The use of gin traps, which are smaller versions of the early tooth-jawed man-traps, was banned in 1958, and snaring too is subject to legal restrictions. Self-locking snares, which tighten by a ratchet action as the animal struggles, are prohibited, and whilst free-running snares can be set to catch foxes or rabbits, a special licence is needed to capture protected species such as otters, red squirrels and hedgehogs. Care in the placing of traps is therefore vital, so that only the target species is likely to be caught.

Sometimes baited cage traps, which are considered more humane, are used, and not only to catch mammalian agricultural pests. Birds such as members of the crow family or feral pigeons can also be a real nuisance on farmland and are sometimes controlled by this means, again under licence.

What about other birds? Today, in Britain, we wouldn’t even consider catching small wild birds for the table, but they were commonly eaten in the past. Were lark’s tongues really a culinary delicacy in Ancient Rome? It seems probable – but what is certain is that in Mrs Beaton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861 there are recipes for cooking larks. She even quotes a price for them, so presumably they were readily available to buy.

We do trap wild birds today – for scientific purposes. This is often done using a mist net, which when used correctly (under licence of course) is not harmful to the birds, which can be ringed, recorded and released. Vital information about species population and migration patterns can be obtained in this way.

Historically mammals, birds and insects have been trapped for a multitude of reasons; either because they have something man wants, or because they do something he doesn’t want done. In Victorian times even if you weren’t edible, if you were wild and beautiful or could sing, someone would be out to get you. In the mid 1800s it was common practice in London for wild songbirds such as linnets- a name which at that time included greenfinches and goldfinches – to be kept as cage birds, and there was money to be made from catching them.

As well as having a linnet in a cage in the corner, the Victorian parlour might also have had a display of moths and butterflies all pinned out on a board in a glass frame. Modern lepidopterists use quite sophisticated traps to lure the objects of their interest, but this is usually an ‘observe, record and release’ exercise rather than ‘kill and keep’.

A lark spitEven today some species are threatened because they have a beautiful pelt or magnificent tusks or simply because somebody somewhere wants to keep them as pets. Others are unfortunate in that some part of their anatomy is considered essential to the perfume trade or as an ingredient in traditional medicine, or even as an aphrodisiac, and in many countries the practice of trapping animals is not as strictly controlled as it is in the UK.

At a more mundane level, most of us try to trap something sometimes, or, if we’re too squeamish, engage someone to do it on our behalf. We appreciate wildlife – in its place, but when wildlife chooses the cushy option and moves from its place to our place we take exception.

Few houses in rural areas are mouse-free, and peanut butter baited traps set in the loft are common. We might be amused at the sight of a row of molehills in a field by the roadside, but when delightful plush-coated Mr Mole decides that our flowerbeds or newly planted allotments make easy burrowing, our smiles become frowns of exasperation. Slugs and snails may go unnoticed, until our lettuce plants and French marigolds are reduced to mere stubs – then out come the half grapefruit skins and the beer-traps. And what about the orchard? Are your apples spoiled by burrowing grubs? Next year you’ll be hanging pheromone traps to entice the codling moths.

Unless your house is in position vulnerable to burglary, you’ve probably never even contemplated setting a man trap, although if your home’s been broken into more than once you might wish you could. Well, it appears that you can! The 1827 Act of Parliament that banned the use of man traps, made an exception and it appears that the law has never been changed.

If you happen to have such a contraption rusting in your loft, you can legally set it inside your house, between the hours of sunset and sunrise, but there are downsides to consider. Not only would it mean getting up uncomfortably early in the summer, but emergency service personnel might have to break into your house to save you from death or injury, and if in the process they were caught and maimed, they’d probably seek considerable legal redress. There’s also the possibility that you or a member of your family might stagger home after a late night of revelry having forgotten the trap . . .

(First published in the April 16 issue)