Clay Shooting Magazine investigates the surprisingly pervasive problem of trap theft, and asks what shooters can do to fight back.
It’s all over in minutes. A gate is forced open, a van drives in and across several fields, eventually spilling men in dark clothing out onto the clay ground.
They move around systematically, unbolting traps or simply walking off with them, knowing exactly where to look and what to take. Their haul is quickly loaded into the van and the thieves speed away, leaving nothing save a huge headache for those who will arrive the next morning to find all their equipment gone.
This is almost exactly what happened to Devon’s Dart Clay Shooting earlier this year. Four traps were lost in an orchestrated raid. ‘All the traps were secure and hidden away’ says manager Neil Halsey. ‘They took our Promatic traps but not the other ones – someone knew exactly what they were after.’
Dart Clay Shooting had, luckily, purchased two extra traps with the aim of adding a flush stand to their layout, so they could keep their shoots going without interruption. They are, however, far from the only ground to have experienced thefts in recent years, with some even being the victim of multiple raids.
Wergs Gun Club in Staffordshire was almost forced to close three years ago after two serious thefts in three months. “We had a trailer and all our traps stolen, then three months later we had all the traps stolen again” explains club secretary Stuart Faulkner.
The thieves used hammers and chisels to break through containers and cut through locks, causing the club to wonder not only how they knew where everything was, but also how they weren’t spotted by local residents.
The thieves’ success was particularly surprising given that the club had placed camouflaged battery-operated surveillance cameras in the trees – which were also taken during the raid. Clearly the criminals had done their research.
These events have had serious long-terms effects on Wergs. The not-for-profit club’s insurer refused to honour the value of the second theft, forcing the committee to give it a loan to keep it operational.
Although the club is now back to full strength, the effects of the thefts are still being felt. “Because of the need to store absolutely everything off-site” says Stuart, “set up for Sunday shoots has to start at 6.30am. Up until 12 months ago we were at least able to keep batteries on-site in a container, but within three months we’d had 40 batteries stolen. It makes it really hard work.”
Given the finite number of shooting grounds in the UK and the tight-knit nature of the shooting industry, it seems unlikely that there would be a strong market for the stolen equipment – so why have there been so many thefts?
“Batteries are for scrap value, traps are stolen to order” says Graham Brown from Purbeck Shooting School, whose ground is burgled biannually. Purbeck lost 70 batteries in the last raid, despite the traps being hard to spot.
“Batteries are around £5 each scrap value” continues Graham. “You can phone up the scrap yards but they won’t divulge anything, because if goods are proved stolen they can’t accept them. Then we have to spent £2,500 replacing £250 worth of batteries.”
As for the traps themselves, their mixed-metal composition makes them useless for scrap, yet the market for them is depressingly robust. “The police said they were probably on their way to Europe” says Neil, referring to Dart Clay Shooting’s stolen traps, although he still holds some hope that they will turn up in the UK.
In fact, traps suddenly turning up elsewhere is not as uncommon as you might think. Several grounds report hearing of their traps appearing on other shoots, or even popping up for sale on Facebook – which in a way is a comforting reminder of the fact these thieves are not the world’s most intelligent criminals.
Serial numbers are one of the most common ways that these traps are identified, although the top trap manufacturers do have a few other methods of recognising traps that they don’t divulge for security reasons.
Unfortunately, however, finding the traps is no guarantee of recovering them. After the second theft, Wergs were contacted by Morris Electrics, who supply all of their controllers and had been approached with a suspicious request.
“They take all of the serial numbers down” explains Stuart. “A chap from a shoot in Cheshire contacted them for controllers and gave our serial numbers. We called the police, but when they went round the Cheshire club said ‘we don’t remember where we bought them’”.
No matter where the affected club is in the country, the pattern of thefts is remarkably similar.
The thieves scope out the ground, perhaps by visiting or simply sneaking in with a camera, then stage the robbery as part of a coordinated sweep of venues with valuable equipment in the local area.
When the area is picked clean the thieves move on – but it’s highly likely they’ll be back.
Some clay ground managers believe that the internet and social media is to blame for the rise in these thefts as, in an effort to attract more shooters, clubs are broadcasting their location and opening times to the world.
Wergs’ Stuart, however, disagrees: “unless you know exactly where we are it’s difficult to find us. Plus, being online brings more customers and more revenue, so we can recover quicker from the thefts – it’s swings and roundabouts.”
Whatever the cause, with recovering equipment difficult and police forces struggling to respond due to budget cuts, clubs are investigating ever more innovative ways to protect themselves from these robberies.
Extra CCTV is a common theme, but the holy grail is something that can stop the traps being taken in the first place.
Purbeck’s Graham, who was also advised by police to paint his batteries pink to hinder their resale, has been weighing up a number of high-tech options.
“We’re looking at systems like geofencing, things that trigger alarms if the trap is moved or battery is disconnected. Unfortunately, they need WiFi and they’re expensive – it’s £50 per machine per month. It becomes crazy when you have 100 traps!”
It will take time for clubs and trap manufacturers to find the ideal solution, but there are also measures shooters can take to protect the clay grounds they treasure: look out for suspicious behaviour, ensure your social media posts don’t make it easy to identify the location of valuable equipment and, above all, keep shooting at your local clubs – your support, ultimately, means that they can keep going.
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