James O’Reilly set a gin trap near a forest ride on the family-owned 5000-acre Cardross estate near Flanders Moss, Stirlingshire.
The shooting part of the estate was described in court as leased on debenture and advertised as of the best shoots in Scotland, with “opportunities for driven grouse, partridge and deer shooting”. O’Reilly, 50, baited the trap by leaving a deer carcass beside it, where goshawks, red kites and white-tailed eagles visited.
The trap caught a buzzard, a bird that has only become re- established as a breeding species in the central Lowlands in the last 25 years.
Stirling Sheriff Court was told the “otherwise healthy bird” would have “suffered tremendously” before it was eventually found by a dog walker and handed to the Scottish SPCA. Despite efforts to save it, the buzzard had to be humanely destroyed days later.
Shona McJannet, prosecuting, said there had also been a potential to trap “other, very iconic species”. She said: “The trap used was one that would never have been legal, and there is evidence that it had not been checked for a period of 24 to 48 hours.”
Ms McJannet, the Crown Office’s specialist wildlife prosecutor, said O’Reilly’s job as keeper on the estate involved maximising the number of birds available for shooting by managing their habitat and controlling predators such as crows, stoats, weasels and foxes.
She said: “Historically, gamekeepers legitimately controlled birds of prey but this practice became wholly illegal in 1954.”
Ms McJannet said the offence came to light in March 2013 when a local man walking his dog found the bird caught by the leg in the gin trap.
She said: “There appeared to have been considerable blood loss. The buzzard was flapping about, trapped by the leg.
“The man opened the jaws of the trap and stood back, thinking the buzzard would fly off, but it moved very little, and was apparently unable to fly.”
He took the bird home and called the Scottish SPCA, whose officers took it to a rescue centre.
Police went to the scene the next day and found the small, factory-made gin trap of a kind not sold in the UK, its jaws controlled by two strong springs.
The court heard that O’Reilly, now of Stronachlacher in the Trossachs, was no longer employed on the estate. He pleaded guilty to illegal trapping and improper use of snares.
Sheriff Peter Anderson ordered O’Reilly to carry out 240 hours unpaid work and warned he could have been jailed.
He said: “It may only have been a buzzard, it may only have been a fox, but these are very serious animal welfare issues. As a gamekeeper, you are given the right to carry out actions that cause animals real suffering.
“You are given that right under strict conditions – the kinds of traps that you can use and the methods you can use, and the steps to ensure that suffering is kept to a limit.”