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Bow traps – a tradition dies out

Brutal trapping methods

A Robin - still alive - trapped in a bow trap: both its legs are brokenA Robin - still alive - trapped in a bow trap: both its legs are brokenBow traps - archetti - are one of the most archaic types of bird trap in European cultural history.

At first glance, the mechanism of this simple trap is remarkable and extremely brutal. A small stick and a piece of cord keep the bow – made traditionally out of a hazel branch – under tension. Birds are attracted by rowan berries and thereby lured to perch on the horizontally positioned stick. At the slightest touch the bow flies apart. Within a fraction of a second the bird is hanging upside down with its legs crushed in the trap. In the warm autumn sun they stay fresh –and alive – until the trapper releases them after a death struggle lasting for hours. Some also die from a blood clot in the brain, general circulation collapse or simply bleed to death.

Some 90 % of the birds caught in these traps are Robins. Although insectivores, in autumn they feed on the vitamin rich berries and so are the majority of bow trap victims. The other 10 % consist of above all Song Thrushes, Wrens and Goldcrests; less often Chaffinches, Bramblings, Tits and larger birds such as Long-eared Owls or Jays. The Fat Dormouse and Hazel Mouse often suffer so-called collateral damage. The effectiveness of the bow traps is astonishing. Statistically one bird is caught for every 7 traps per day. If a poacher has trap lines consisting of say 70 traps, he catches 10 Robins per day. With a trapping ‘season’ lasting from mid-September to mid-December 900 and more birds - per trapper - can end up in the cooking pot!

"Withdrawal" to North Italy

A bowtrap installation in a hazelnut copseA bowtrap installation in a hazelnut copseBow traps date back as far as the Bronze Age and could be found in all European countries into modern times. In Germany, called “Sprenkel”, they were banned in the 19th Century and were last found in use during the years immediately preceding WW I.

Since that time they have vanished from Europe’s forests with 3 exceptions. In the Friaul region of North Italy isolated cases of their use have been recorded, and a single case was reported from the west of the Basque country in the French Pyrenees in the past few decades. The bow trap is however only used on a large scale in an area just 1,500 square kilometre in size in the northern Italian province of Brescia in Lombardy, in the mountains between Lakes Garda and Iseo.

In the middle of the last century bow traps could be seen by passers-by in the front gardens of houses in the mountain villages of Brescia. They could also be seen along hedgerows and on grassland and meadows from bordering tracks and paths even though they had been banned in Italy since the 1950s. Experts estimate that at the beginning of the 1990s there were still some 150,000 bow traps in use in the Brescia Mountains.

(Almost) The end of a tradition

During the first CABS bird protection camp in 1985, 6 activists collected 3,266 bow traps within just 2 days. Since then the duration of the camps have been extended and the initial spontaneous collection of traps has, in the course of 15 years, become a well-organised mass operation against poaching – with hundreds of participants.

Collected bow traps and their victims: 90% of the trapped birds are RobinsCollected bow traps and their victims: 90% of the trapped birds are Robins90% of the trapped birds are Robins. In 1985, during the first CABS bird protection camp, 6 activists collected 3,266 traps in only 2 days. Since that time the camps are of longer duration and the, over some 15 years, the more or less spontaneous collection of traps became a well organised large scale operation against poaching with hundreds of participants.

The number of bow traps found during operations grew steadily until 2001 in step with the more thoroughly planned operations. In 2001 some 71 activists took part in the CABS camp which had a total duration of over 2 ½ weeks – some 189 personnel days in all. The result: 12,104 bow traps.

In the following year the close cooperation with the forest police, which had been practised since 1999, appeared to be paying off. We had then begun to report trap line locations to the police so that they could set an ambush and catch poachers red-handed. After the first such operations in 1999 and 2000, in 2001 the police total arrest figures of poachers exceeded 50 for the first time. This had an effect on the poachers and the fear of arrest was reflected in the number of bow traps found in 2002 – 9,500 – although we had more people on the ground (a total of 198 personnel days). The number of bow traps found has declined dramatically up until the present day although the duration of the camps has been longer. In autumn 2006, during 4 weeks of operations with a total of 108 participants (301 personnel days) we found only 1,436 traps, hardly 12 % of the total found in 2001! Since 208 we have recorded a slight increase - in October 2009 2,159 traps were found. Whether this is a real increase, perhaps fuelled by the economic crises of the past couple of years, or we were just very lucky with our searches, is not at present clear.

Not only has the number of traps in use declined dramatically but also the length of the ‘season’. Because of the constant fear of being caught, the poachers now restrict their activities to the core time of bird migration. Traps are now only set from the beginning of October to the beginning of November and not, as previously, for a full 3 months in autumn.