By Andrew Westcott
INDEX OF SUB-HEADINGS ON THIS PAGE:
An Introduction To Gin Traps
How I Got Interested In Collecting Gin Traps
The Anatomy Of A Gin Trap
How To Measure And Describe A Trap
Using The Gin Trap Against Rabbits
Variations In Basic Construction
A Word On Trap Chains, Swivels And Stakes
Different Designs Of Gin Trap
Alternatives And Successors To The Gin Trap
Further Reading And Related Links
Firstly, to dispel any misconceptions caused by my writing of this page, I do not consider myself to be an expert on the subject of gin traps, and prefer to be described as a casual trap collector. I am particularly interested in the manufacturing techniques used, the way the designs evolved over time, the various methods of deployment and general history of the British gin trap. When time and funds permit and the opportunity presents itself, I attempt to search out additions to my modest collection along with as much information on any new acquisitions as I can find.
A few members of our society, particularly those from a rural background, may well be aware of the existence of gin traps and the way they were used, although I think it would be fair to say that the majority of people from city environments along with the younger members of our society will probably never have encountered these steel jaw animal traps as they have been out of production and illegal to use in the UK for many decades. The main aim of this page is to cast some light on the subject of the gin trap for the benefit of the casual enquirer or the budding trap collector by describing briefly what it is, its operation and method of use, the more common variations in manufacture and style that may be encountered, and to outline some of the various alternatives to the standard 'gin' that exist. The hobby of trap collecting covers an enormous range of traps designed for just about every conceivable application and originating from many counties across the globe. Describing them all would be an impossibility for most people, so I will only be dealing with traps of UK origin here and then at the most basic level. If more information is desired, there is a list of publications at the bottom of the page with details on how and where to buy them.
The name 'gin trap' is nowadays given to a mechanical trap designed to catch an animal (or a human!) by the leg using spring operated jaws either with or without a serrated edge or teeth. The word 'gin' is generally believed to have come from the word 'engine' which was used centuries ago to describe any mechanical device, and as I understand it some literature from around the 17th century referred to traps as 'engines'. The word 'gin' came into being presumably as a result illiteracy, mishearing of the word 'engine' or simple laziness of speech, and as is so often the case with the English language, this commonly used variant eventually became accepted as a noun in its own right.
Steel spring traps have probably been in use in some form or another almost ever since the technique of manufacturing and tempering carbon steel in order to create a spring was discovered, although it has been said that the first mention of a steel trap bearing any similarity to the gin traps described here appears in literature dating from the late 16th century, although I have not seen the text myself. A wide variety of designs have since evolved based on differing ideas and the intended target species, ranging from the tiny kingfisher trap through the range of common vermin traps and pole traps right up to the large predator traps, and of course the man trap.
I believe Fenn to be the only UK trap manufacturer still making spring jawed traps suitable for catching anything larger than a mouse, these obviously being of the approved humane variety but there was a time not so very long ago when there were many UK manufacturers producing traps for the home market, and also for export throughout the world. There were many factors involved in the gradual decline of trap production here in the UK, although there were three major laws introduced concerning the use of gin traps which had an impact on the trap making industry to some degree or another; Firstly, a bill was passed in 1827 banning the use of man traps and spring guns, making it illegal to set such devices in order to help protect property against poachers. Secondly, in 1904 it became illegal to set a trap in an elevated position with the intention of catching birds, this doubtlessly having an affect on the manufacture of pole traps intended for this purpose. Without doubt though, the legislation responsible for forcing the greatest change in the industry came into force on the 31st of July, 1958 when it became illegal in England to use any kind of trap designed to restrain an animal by the leg using steel jaws, and the only spring traps allowed to be used after this date were those which had been specially approved as being humane, which required them to be of the instant kill variety, and only then when set according to strict guidelines.
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From an early age I developed a strange fascination with gin traps and subsequently joined the ranks of trap collectors in the UK. Over the years my trap collecting activities have enabled me to amass a reasonable collection of traps of various designs, although my main interest remains firmly with the British made gin trap, its method of manufacture and the way of life led by those whose livelihood relied so much on these now collectable tools of the trade. So how exactly did I become afflicted with this slightly odd and eccentric interest?
Well, it was like this...
When I was a young boy of about eight or nine, I was rummaging around in an old shed which had once belonged to a long deceased relative when I came across two strange but interesting looking metal devices about a foot or so in length hanging by chains on the back wall. At first I had no idea what they were, but was completely taken in by their look of sheer menace as they each possessed a pair of evil-looking toothed jaws. Despite great determination, the only way I could open the jaws at all was to stand on the spring and watch in wonder as the jaws fell open. Was this perhaps some sort of vice for holding a piece of wood or something steady while it was worked on? I didn't know, but I remember asking a builder who happened to be doing some work for our family if he knew what these devices were. He explained that they were gin traps, and proceeded to demonstrate how they worked by squeezing that spring down (to my amazement using just one hand!), opening the jaws, doing something I couldn't quite see with a small catch and laying it carefully on the ground. He then found a small piece of stick and pressed it down gently onto a flat square plate within the open jaws.
I still remember jumping with alarm as the jaws suddenly leapt upwards, breaking the stick in two. It was then explained to me that these were animal traps designed to catch rabbits by the leg, and would be set on the ground in such a place that a rabbit would stand on it and get caught by the toothed jaws.
I quite understand that not everyone is going to share my interest in these devices as they were primitive and barbaric, capable of causing great pain to the captured animal; The design, however, was undeniably highly effective and these tools became firmly locked into the culture of the countryside. On rare occasions, visitors who have looked at my modest collection have remarked on the cruelty of the devices and have expressed disbelief at my interest, being seemingly unable to distinguish between someone who uses them and someone who collects them as historical relics. I wonder if collectors of antique guns and military equipment encounter the same narrow-mindedness? Unfortunately my mother is of this attitude and hates gin traps with a vengeance, although perhaps with good reason in her case. She has told me that when she was a child and living in the countryside, she recalls lying in bed night after night hearing the sound of squealing rabbits in the distance, obviously having been caught in traps set by the local trappers. She says the sound of captured rabbits haunted her throughout her childhood, and if that weren't enough she lost her favourite childhood cat to a 'gin', the vet having to put it down due to the extent of its injuries after becoming caught by the leg and suffering horribly.
Sadly, it seems there are people still around who still set these now illegal gin traps in order to catch rabbits in the UK despite there being perfectly good 'instant kill' traps available which have been approved for use. Gin traps by definition are leg hold devices and as such are fairly indiscriminate and they were often triggered by non-target animals such as dogs and cats, and in any case caused extreme suffering, sometimes resulting in the loss of the limb or even death due to blood loss. I am totally against the illegal use of traps and have no sympathy with the perpetrators, so if you should be unlucky enough to find a gin trap which has been set or find an animal caught in one, consider informing the RSPCA in order to report the occurrence to them so that they can take the appropriate legal action. Be aware though that there are legal steel traps which could be confused with the illegal gin trap, so be sure to identify the type of trap before you disturb it.
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The classic gin trap design is very simple and highly effective, consisting essentially of just a pair of jaws held closed by spring tension, and a triggering mechanism. This design has been well proven over centuries of use in the field and the later designs are masterpieces of simple mechanical efficiency. The two diagrams below illustrate the component parts of a typical gin trap designed in this case for rabbit control. The names I have given to the components are as were commonly used by the manufacturers, and it seems sensible to retain that naming convention.
The whole trap is constructed upon a base consisting of a bar of steel, this is known as the stock bar. This stock bar has a stock head and a stock end, the head usually being bent up at the end to form one of the standards, or hinge points, for the jaws, and the stock end usually having a hole punched in it for the purpose of fastening a chain. A powerful spring would be attached to the stock by the large spring rivet. This spring in most cases is in the form of the bow spring design pictured here, and as we move towards the jaws the spring narrows in width and thickens in depth somewhat to form what is known as the spring neck. At the end of the spring would be formed an eye, for the purpose of encircling and closing the jaws. Most traps of this design have a shorter bar riveted to the stock at right angles, and under the jaw region. This is known as the bridge and is used to support the fittings for the plate and bent up at the bridge head to support the fittings for the tongue, which would be designed to engage the till on the plate in order to set the trap.
The photo to the right shows the trigger mechanism in the set position. Clearly visible is the jaw, tongue, till and the plate. The operation is simple but effective: The spring would be compressed allowing the jaws to open, one of which would fall into a recess allowing the tongue to be closed over it. The plate would then be lifted to enable the till to lock over the tongue, holding it down. The spring would then be released, the upwards force of the retained jaw on the tongue being sufficient to hold the plate in the up position. If something were to then press the plate down, this would release the tongue holding the jaw which would then rise rapidly under spring pressure along with the opposite jaw to close tightly together, the whole operation occurring in a fraction of a second, and with considerable violence. This method of triggering allows for a very sensitive arrangement, and it would be usual for a good trapper to position the plate in such a way that the till was only just retaining the tongue, meaning that the slightest pressure and downward movement of the plate would allow the trap to fire, as it was well understood that an animal, when stepping on the plate and feeling it give way, could possibly have fast enough reactions to withdraw its foot before the jaws closed. Once closed upon the leg though, the jaws become locked together by the spring's eye and cannot be forced open again without depressing the spring first.
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I have decided to place this section here in response to a certain amount correspondence I have received regarding a suitable method of describing a trap's size, and as a result of seeing traps for sale on eBay with the dimensions poorly or meaninglessly described.
Possibly the most important dimension a potential vendor can give is that of the jaws, as most other constructional details will revolve around that, and can usually be seen in a good photograph anyhow. The diagram I have placed here demonstrates clearly where the jaw measurement should be taken, and as can be seen this is actually between the insides of the two jaw hinge supports, or standards, rather than the jaws themselves. Any measurement taken should be in inches rather than centimetres and accurate to at least a quarter of an inch especially on the smaller sizes, as even this small amount can make an important difference to a collector. Little else needs to be known regarding size, although the trap should be closely examined for any identifying marks or stampings which wouldn't be visible in a photograph, these being usually found on the neck of the spring, on the plate, or on the upper or lower surface of the tongue but resist the temptation to get to work with a wire brush or similar in an attempt to make a name more readable.
As a final plea to anyone considering selling a trap, please resist the temptation to set the trap and trigger it using a bit of stick or suchlike as doing this causes considerable and lasting damage to a rusty and unlubricated trap, even if only done once. Also, there is a distinct possibility that a very old and rusty spring may break if depressed or at least permanently bend and not return fully to its former position. If the spring breaks it renders the trap worthless, and a trap with a weak or bent spring is worth a mere fraction of what it would have been had the spring been of the correct shape, so the best advice would be to not mess with it at all, no matter how tempting it seems.
Please don't attempt to clean a trap or remove any of the rust in the mistaken belief that it will make it more attractive to potential buyers, as collectors will have their own ideas on how to treat and preserve the trap once purchased, and will be quite happy to accept one complete with all the rust, cow muck, cobwebs and anything else that may be adhering to it. More importantly, careless abrasion may damage or obliterate faint remains of name stamps, turning that as yet unidentified rare trap into 'just another rabbit trap'. British gin traps as collectors' pieces are in diminishing supply as they have not been manufactured for several decades, and many continue to find their way to the scrap yards, rust away beyond recovery in damp barns or even get destroyed by well-meaning but misguided individuals - I personally feel there is a need to preserve these relics of a bygone age for future generations.
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Gin traps could be set either at the entrance to burrows or in the runs, but successful trapping relied on the trapper understanding how to correctly deploy his traps, and in the main this required the trap to be hidden from view. This would generally be achieved by excavating an area of earth just large enough and deep enough to allow the set trap to sit within the recess, which would then be gently concealed by sprinkling earth over it to bring the surface back up to its original level, completely hiding the trap. Rabbits tend to leave their burrows in a predictable manner, positioning their feet in precisely the same place time after time, so an experienced trapper would set his traps in such a way that the plate of the trap coincided with where the rabbits' feet would touch the ground.
I was born some time after gin traps were made illegal to use and so have no direct knowledge of the lifestyle or methods of a typical trapper, but there are books available which help give an insight into how gin traps were used. Far more interesting though are those who remember first-hand how it was done, and I consider myself fortunate to have been contacted by such a person, a Mr Robin Menneer, who has written much on the subject of Cornish Hedges, and in so doing has highlighted the specific damage rabbits do to these structures by way of their excavations. I quote, with permission, a section from one of his papers which gives an insight into the life of a professional trapper:
"The author himself, like many another country boy, caught rabbits with gin traps during the war, when food was rationed. Traps used to be set along a length of hedge, with a trap in every run and at the entrance to every hole. Each trap was set into the ground so that its top was level with the surface, the spring covered with thin turf and the footplate with sifted earth. Most rabbits were caught during the first night and, after a day or two, the traps were moved on. In this way, the farmer hoped that all the rabbits in that section of hedge would be dealt with. But, once all was quiet again, rabbits moved in from other untrapped hedges. Naturally it did not pay the trapper to move his traps to a hedge until it had plenty of rabbits, so really he was only reducing the population, not eliminating it."
"Most farmers employed rabbit trappers to reduce the numbers of this pest. Otherwise, with their small fields, they would often find that half their grass and corn had been eaten by rabbits coming out of the hedges. Len Neale told the author how in his youth he helped his father move his 900 gins on farms at Trewint. They picked up and re-laid 300 traps each day, Monday to Saturday, so each gin was moved on average every third day except Sundays, when they were only looked at, rabbits removed and the traps re-set in the same place. The rabbits were sold to a local dealer who put them on the train."
Robin includes a table of Mr Neale's trapping records, which "shows how relatively few rabbits (5.6 per trap per year) were caught by the 900 gins which had to be taken up and re-set in a new place every third day."
He notes that
"Trapping was not an easy way of making a living."
For far more detail and information on rabbits I strongly recommend a visit to Robin's site, where his paper (in PDF format) entitled "The Curse of Rabbits in Cornish Hedges" can be found under the "All About Cornish Hedges" heading.
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There are a great many variations in the design of gin traps and the methods used to manufacture them, and the first variation I'll deal with here concerns the design of spring used, as this is often quoted in descriptions and is perhaps one of the more obvious variations. In the early days of trap manufacture, springs were entirely hand-made, being heated in a forge and beaten into shape on an anvil before being subjected to some rather dubious hardening and tempering techniques, resulting in a type of spring known interestingly enough as a forged spring. The earliest traps used what is known as a flat spring as shown in the photo to the left, which was all but superceded by the more efficient types, although this design was still being incorporated into certain small vermin traps and even the largest lion traps as exported to Africa right up until production ceased. The early flat springs had a reputation for rapidly becoming weakened, although I strongly suspect this had more to do with the poor tempering techniques used in the earlier traps rather than a basic design problem, and as is so often the case, once a reputation has been established it is difficult to shift.
A slightly later modification consisted of folding the spring over by 180° to create what is known as a bow spring, this enabling a longer spring to be incorporated into a physically shorter length. This design of spring became pretty much the industry standard throughout the trap making years, and proved to be more effective and resistant to wear than the old flat springs. The method of producing forged springs may be of interest so I'll describe it briefly here. Initially a bar of spring steel would be obtained, and a piece of ordinary iron would be heat welded onto the end of it. With a great deal of work with the forge and hammer the iron end would be split, opened out, and the two resulting prongs bent inwards again to form the spring's eye, with even more work needed to obtain the required shape. This process required many heating phases, was very time consuming and produced springs which although similar to look at, were all unique in their own small way, but at the time it was the only way to get the job done. As can be seen in photo 9, the welding of the two parts of the spring often leaves a noticeable join mark on the underside of the spring. Once finished, the newly formed spring would be hardened by quenching in water and then treated to produce the required springiness by reheating the spring to a specific heat for a certain length of time to 'draw the temper', a mysterious and critical process little understood by those outside the industry: In the early days the temperature would be determined by smearing the spring with animal fat and then heating the spring in the forge until the fat burst into flame, this indicating an appropriate temperature. The spring would then be removed and allowed to cool down. Later methods allowed accurate monitoring of the temperature and duration of the heating and so enabled a more uniform and effectively tempered spring to be produced.
In time, trap manufacturers became aware of the benefits of making many of the trap parts by machine and many of the larger companies invested heavily in the equipment to do so, with only the smaller companies being forced to continue down the hand-made route by having insufficient funding for the expensive machinery or the tooling for them. One result of this was a gradual change in the springs used, as rather than having to be hand made, they could now be stamped out and shaped entirely by machine, leading to far better quality and uniformity which in the longer term meant either cheaper traps or higher profits. From the collector's perspective, machine pressed steel springs could potentially offer a means of identifying which plant it was originally made at, as all tooling would be slightly different although it is worth remembering that smaller companies were in the habit of buying in ready made components from the larger makers. An example of a pressed steel spring is shown in photo 10, and as can be seen the spring is 'embossed', or 'dished upwards' in cross section to reduce flexure at this point, and there is no evidence of the join found on forged springs.
The final evolution occurred with the introduction of the coiled wire spring. This design uses a rather more modern looking spring than the others, made as it is of stout spring steel wire wound into a coil, one end being anchored onto the stock end, the other formed into a loop to create the eye. This idea had important benefits over the other types in as much that it was much more resistant to weakening by use or rust because of its increased thickness and lower deflection per unit length, it had a greater overall travel which meant the force of the spring remained much more constant over the length of its operational travel leading to higher force being exerted by the jaws in the closed position, and it represented a significant saving in weight and therefore cost, something a trapper going out with ten traps over his shoulder would have very much on his mind.
Another way traps can be described is in the region of the jaws. This component of the trap is subject to many variations, and the teeth are one area where a great difference may be found. For example, some may have teeth cut into the edges, have spiked teeth riveted on the top surface or underside, and where the teeth are stamped as part of the jaw itself, there is variation in the form, such as whether or not the teeth are fully interlocking or only partly so. some jaws are smooth with no teeth at all. However, despite so many differences in tooth design, jaws can be sub-divided basically into two main categories, those that are either flat or those with a reinforcing ridge, both types being shown in photo 12, with the ridged jaws on the left and the flat jaws on the right. The ridges were incorporated as reinforcements to the jaws making them less susceptible to flexing, but as this shape had to be specially created the costs were somewhat higher and this design feature was usually limited to the more expensive and better quality trap. Flat jaws were much simpler to make and could be easily stamped out of metal sheet and were therefore cheaper and so are often found to be a feature of traps at the cheaper end of the range or the smaller vermin traps.
Some traps were designed in such a way that a small gap would be left between the jaws when fully closed, this accomplished by the design and shape of the jaws themselves and such designs were described as having 'offset jaws'. This feature, although commonly seen in American traps is very uncommon in British traps and very few manufacturers incorporated the idea. The feature can be found on some versions of the once popular and still very common 4 inch 'LI-LO' wire spring trap, and a photo showing this can be seen to the left. Offset jaws would be considered a good idea for a number of reasons depending on who you asked. One view is that it was considered more humane to not have the jaws slam completely shut on the leg, breaking bones and cutting skin, the intentional gap preventing this. Another view was again concerned with leg damage but for a different reason, the intention being to minimise the damage to the leg bone and tissue which in turn reduced the chances of the animal pulling its leg off completely and escaping, albeit to possibly die later. Looking at it from a more technical viewpoint, an offset would allow the jaws to close to a greater degree on a leg of a given thickness, as the jaws would no longer be held apart by the leg to such a degree as with conventional jaws, and this would allow the spring to rise further up its travel making for a more secure catch with far less chance of the jaws being opened. Interestingly, in Britain later types of man trap were also made with large offsets on toothless jaws to reduce the damage to an entrapped leg, as many of the catches turned out to be innocent people - those out walking or children playing in the woods, and such was the outrage shown by the general public concerning the horrific injuries inflicted by the old style man trap that the old design had to be re-thought.
Many interesting variations between traps can be found involving the trigger mechanism, as this area was subject to many ideas and designs. One feature of the better class of trap was the use of a brass tongue and till rather than having these components made out of steel, the benefit of this was chiefly to eliminate the chances of the mechanism rusting up if left set for any length of time, but also a brass trigger mechanism had a smoother action, the brass pieces sliding smoothly over each other rather than grating as rusted steel components would tend to do. On occasion, the avid gin trap collector may be fortunate enough to encounter a rather different style of triggering mechanism to that normally fitted to a gin trap, as several manufacturers experimented with trying to simplify or improve the mechanism in order to either improve performance or to reduce costs. Many interesting ideas were tried and incorporated into production models and one such idea was that patented by Roberts in 1932, which in this case involved the elimination of the tongue, or 'dog' as it is known as in America, and relied on the opened jaws engaging an elongated till directly. This feature may not be readily apparent to the novice collector unless he knows what to look for, and may be misinterpreted, as I once did years ago, as an incomplete trap. The advantage of this particular design was that the trap was simpler and therefore cheaper to manufacture, lighter and narrower in the bridge, and easier to set as only the plate had to be lifted into position.
The trap pictured in image No. 15 shows another approach to designing a trigger mechanism which went a stage further than the 'dogless' design. This trap is a typical 'run trap' having a flat spring and a jaw measurement of 3 and a quarter inches, but is unusual in that not only does it have no tongue, but it has no bridge either, the plate being mounted directly to the stock and the till on the plate being positioned to engage directly with the eye of the spring, simplifying the design pretty much as far as was possible. The advantages were similar to the previous example - with fewer parts to make and assemble, the trap was cheaper to manufacture, and presumably cheaper to buy. One disadvantage of this design was the high force placed on the till by the spring, as it didn't benefit from the force being divided down by the action of the leverage of the jaw and tongue assembly, resulting in a high wear rate. There was also no scope for adjustment in the trigger action and so once worn, the trap became virtually useless. Despite this design possibly being cheaper to buy, I can only assume that they had certain operational issues in the field as they were never widely accepted by trappers of the day and relatively few were manufactured in comparison to the conventional tongue and till arrangement.
Many apparently pointless patents were filed in connection with the design of traps, it being difficult to understand where the benefits, if any, of some of the designs lay, and it is easy to believe that designers of the time were almost filing patents for the sake of it. However, where such oddities made it through to production, it does add interest for the collector. Patents aside, another variation on the normal trap design which is also easy for the novice to overlook is the extended stock. An example of this detail is pictured in the photo on the left and consists of a departure from the usual practice of bending up the stock head to form one of the jaw standards, and instead the stock remains straight and a separate second standard is fitted on which to hinge the jaws. This construction method leaves a small amount of stock bar protruding and according to various adverts of the time had the benefit of offering added protection to the jaw mountings in the event of the trap being dropped end down, which presumably happened frequently enough and ran sufficient risk of damaging the trap to warrant the extra cost of manufacture and purchase.
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Any trap would have required some form of securing to prevent the captured animal or a predator dragging the trap away causing it to be lost, and the usual way of achieving this would be to chain it to a wooden or metal stake driven into the ground, the chain and stake usually supplied already attached to a new trap. The chain would need some kind of swivel link along its length to allow the chain to twist as the unfortunate animal struggled to free itself, as if the chain became kinked it might be possible for the chain to be broken or the stake be levered out of the ground, resulting in the loss of both the captured animal and the trap. Photo 17 shows three different styles of swivel often found on trap chains, the top one being the most common twisted wire design, the middle being a more expensive and stronger cast type and the bottom is an example of a 'box swivel', patented by Lane's and found on some of their wire spring traps, amongst others. The design of swivel, along with other design features can sometimes offer a clue as to the manufacturer of a particular unidentified trap, so the chain and swivel should be considered important to the collector.
Photo 18 shows a random selection of stakes fitted to gin traps, and here it is possible to get an idea of the wide variety of designs and styles to be encountered. The top two stakes pictured are manufactured from square section steel and as with any style of stake would have been offered in different lengths, the longer lengths useful for securing a trap in sandy soil. The top one has had the tip ground to a point whereas the second has been heated and hammered flat to create the point. The third stake from the top is made of round section steel rod, and as with the other two, the top has been heated and curved over to produce a loop in order that the chain may be secured. The odd one out here is the bottom stake, in as much that it is made out of wood, with a large staple having been driven through the wood and the protruding ends bent over to secure it. So why use wood? It is possible that this stake was home-made, but may also have been a cheaper and lighter option offered to buyers. A wooden stake may have been inferior in strength and would have had a shorter useful life as compared to the steel ones, but certain opinions suggest wooden stakes were in fact far more secure, being much more difficult to pull from the ground on account of their extra width. The presence of a stake on a trap is desirable from the point of view of a collector, but is generally of little help in identifying a trap as the makers would have used any odd pieces of steel available at the time for making the stake rather than keeping to one style, therefore variations even within the same batch would have been likely.
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The basic idea of toothed jaws being closed by a powerful spring was such a success that the design was universally accepted, and many different patterns emerged for dealing with the unique problems associated with catching a particular species. Photo No.19 shows a design known as a pole trap, this particular one being fairly large, the serrated jaws measuring 5 inches between the supports. The design of a pole trap is rather different to a normal gin in as much as it is much more compact with a completely circular base, with a spring which rises up from that to close the jaws. These traps would normally have been used for catching birds, particularly birds of prey, and would usually be set on the top of a wooden pole or an old tree stump which is how the name originated. Buzzards and the like were considered unwelcome by gamekeepers as they were known to kill and feed on young game birds so careful observation would be used to locate sites where a bird would regularly perch, either for plucking its prey or for hunting, and a trap positioned and set accordingly, with its chain secured to prevent the trap being dragged away.
The bird, upon landing on the top of the pole would depress the plate, triggering the trap and be caught by the legs, to be killed when the gamekeeper next did his rounds. Pole traps come in a variety of sizes, ranging from the tiny kingfisher trap with 2 inch jaws right up to traps with 8 inch jaws for catching eagles and suchlike. Pole traps typically have holes in their plates which could be used for attaching bait if required, allowing another means of luring the target bird to the trap. In 1904, a law was passed making it illegal to set a trap such as this in 'an elevated position', although presumably the design still found use amongst the trappers of the time, possibly illegally, as various makers continued to offer this design of "round" trap. Pole traps can also be found with smooth jaws as pictured in photo 20 rather than the more common serrated ones, probably a money saving option offered by some of the manufacturers, and I understand that some were offered with 'India rubber' padding on the jaws in an attempt to reduce the suffering of the bird, although I've yet to encounter one of these.
Kingfisher traps are probably the smallest gin trap manufactured in the UK, typically having a jaw measurement of just 2 inches, and this small size is illustrated by the dice pictured with the one in photo 21. Kingfisher traps, as the name may suggest, were used to trap kingfishers, which if present in sufficient numbers were perceived as a threat to trout fisheries and the like, although these days it is difficult to imagine such a tiny bird doing any real damage to the stock; Taxidermists of the time also expressed an interest in the colourful birds, and without doubt many were caught to end up in display cabinets or to have their feathers used for fishing lures. Kingfishers tend to patrol a certain stretch of river in their pursuit of prey, and in doing so flit from one overhanging bough to another. This predictable habit would prove to be the undoing of many, as a kingfisher trap would be secured on a likely landing point on a branch, usually the highest part of a horizontal bough, and when the bird alighted there it would be caught by the legs. Due to their highly specific purpose, kingfisher traps are relatively uncommon although they do turn up from time to time as several manufacturers offered kingfisher traps for sale with most constructed along the same lines as the one illustrated, although different designs were produced by some firms, notably Henry Lane.
Apart from rabbit control, another common application of the gin trap was in the control of smaller ground vermin in its various forms, such as rats, mice, weasels and stoats. The photo on the left illustrates two typical small vermin traps as sold by most of the trap manufacturers, and a typical jaw size for these traps would range from between two and a half inches to four inches and beyond. Highly characteristic of this type of trap are the teeth on the jaws, as they usually have small saw-like teeth cut into them, and the plate would have two holes punched in it to facilitate fixing bait to the trap in order to help lure the animal, in the hope of a fatal head catch rather than a leg catch. A head catch was preferable partly due to the more humane instant-kill nature of such a catch, but also because rats in particular were notorious for wringing off a leg in order to escape. As illustrated here, these traps can be found with either the conventional bow spring or the older style flat spring, and with square or rounded jaws, the manufacturers of the time often offering a choice of combinations for different prices.
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Once the legislation of 1958 had come into force, trappers and those responsible for vermin control were rather limited in their choice of trap, and although cage traps were available, if a spring trap was required it had to be one of the few approved designs now available and most of these designs favoured the method of clamping the body of the target animal between a pair of spring loaded arms or jaws, this method proving to be effective in catching the animal and also of ensuring a quick kill. Such a trap is the Juby trap, shown in photo 23. These actually proved to be rather expensive to produce and production ceased after a fairly short time. A cheaper alternative was the Imbra trap also shown in photo 23 on the far right, very similar in design and appearance, but easier to manufacture and lighter in the field, but equally effective. In 1874 the RSPCA, in the first of several competitions launched in an attempt to speed up the emergence of a truly humane killer trap offered an initial prize of £50 to anyone who could design a suitably efficient device. Many designs were offered over the years for testing but it was eventually the Sawyer trap, also shown in photo 23, which finally won the competition in 1946, taking the prize which now stood at £300. The Fenn vermin and rabbit traps, an example shown on the far left in photo 23 utilised a slightly different design to the Juby, Imbra and Sawyer traps in as much as they had two rounded or square jaws which would clamp around the body to kill the animal, and this design from Fenn is still available to purchase new as the Fenn Mk 4 and the Fenn Mk 6, being the only trap of this type still in production in the UK.
Humane trap designs weren't always required to kill the target animal, and a live catch was seen as preferable by many people so some interesting ideas emerged to enable this to be done with the minimum of suffering. One example of such an approach is the leg snare. Several manufacturers produced such designs, most of them being broadly similar in design. The photo on the left shows a typical example, in this case the Phelps Mk2 leg snare. The operation is fairly simple, with a powerful spring being held compressed using the tongue, till and plate system until an animal stepped on the plate, whereupon the spring ends would rapidly move apart pulling the noose tight around the animal's leg. This particular trap features an adjustment to the noose enabling it to be set to just hold the animal securely, but not too tightly therefore hopefully avoiding the possibility of injury. My thoughts on this design are that it was not very popular with trappers and few were sold, and if one part of the trap was mislaid it rendered the trap useless. Odd parts of this type of trap occasionally surface, but it is rare to find a complete working example of the Phelps nowadays.
One area of pest control that has given rise to some ingenious designs is mole control. These creatures are very secretive and because of their habit of living an almost entirely underground existence, special trap designs had to be employed to destroy them. To illustrate the lengths people would go to remove a troublesome mole, certain devices known as mole guns were manufactured to discharge a rifle or shotgun round at the mole when triggered. A case of overkill perhaps? The photo on the left is of an interesting design of spring mole trap known as the 'Anglo Impassable', the Mk1 in this case. This trap uses a quite spectacular method of dispatching the mole: Moles sometimes create a run just under the surface of the grass raising the turf as they do so, and if a small section is flattened with the foot, next time the mole travels the tunnel he will re-open the tunnel by re-lifting the turf, and this trap makes use of this fact. The assembly bearing the six sharp spikes would be drawn upwards against the coil spring, being retained by a plate and lever assembly. The trap's two ground spikes would then be pushed into the soil either side and directly above the flattened mole run in such a way that the trigger plate would rest on the surface of the flattened run. When the unfortunate mole attempted to push through the flattened section of tunnel the trigger plate would be forced upwards, releasing a catch which in turn would release the six spikes which would slam down guillotine style through the ground impaling the victim in its tunnel, quickly killing it. Apparently this trap didn't find much favour with professional mole catchers as the spikes would damage the pelt, making it unusable.
This photo is of a conventional humane mole trap; This type of trap is fairly common and legal to use, and the design has changed little over the decades so it can be difficult distinguishing the old from the new as condition alone can be a poor indicator of age. The main variations to be seen are in the design of the spring, the example here having a coiled compression spring, but most often seen are the types with two flat springs acting against each other. To set a trap of this design you simply squeeze the handles together to open the jaws and insert the trigger ring between them to keep them apart. The trap would then be placed in a partially excavated mole run, and when the mole encountered the ring, it would try to force itself through it, dislodging it and allowing the jaws to close, crushing the body of the mole resulting, hopefully, in near instantaneous death.
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MANY MORE EXAMPLES OF TRAPS TO BE PLACED ON THIS PAGE; WHEN I'VE TAKEN THE PHOTOS AND COMPLETED THE TEXT, I'LL ADD THE DETAILS HERE, SO 'WATCH THIS SPACE'...
The Trap Man
UK manufacturers and suppliers of humane cage traps.
The Aussie Trap Collector
Web site with many interesting pictures of rarer traps from around the world in their picture gallery.
The Old Trap Collector
A new private website still in the construction stage, but offering information and photos of UK traps.
Rescuing The Past
A promising new web site created for "anyone that collects rural bygones or has an interest in our rural heritage."
American Trap Collectors' forum
A forum concerned with American traps and trapping - you will need to register to access the forums.
A web site concerned with perpetuating and 'continuing an ancient craft'. One of the papers deals specifically with the problem rabbits cause to these hedges and contains a wealth of information on rabbits generally, and the methods used to trap them.
If you know of any other trap collecting or vermin related links which could go here,
or are interested in exchanging web site links,
please let me know so I can consider them for inclusion.
Rural Reflections (2nd Revised and Enlarged Edition.) - Stuart Haddon-Riddoch
A hard back limited edition book, containing 416 pages, index, and over 400 illustrations.
An exhaustive study of British traps, the trap making industry and game keeping.
An absolute must for anyone seriously interested in traps and trap collecting.
Available to order:
How To Trap & Snare - William Carnegie
An excellent book running to 224 pages, originally published in 1898, but now available once again.
Describes in great detail how a trapper of the time would capture various species of vermin,
and for this the original author draws on many years of experience in the field.
The web site of the publishers can be visited here:
Rabbit Traps - T & J Bateman
A pictorial guide to British rabbit traps, and includes examples from the author's own collection. Runs to 53 pages.
Available to order.
Bird Traps - Traps & Scarers - T & J Bateman
A pictorial guide to British bird traps, featuring traps in the author's own collection. Runs to 33 pages.
Available to order.
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© Andrew Westcott 2003 - 2013