Magpies may not be the most popular birds but they have their legal rights, the High Court has ruled.
A senior judge declared it unlawful to allow the birds to suffer unnecessarily if they are used under licence as decoys in traps to catch other magpies with the intention to protect eggs and chicks of songbirds.
Mr Justice Leveson, sitting in London, yesterday allowed an RSPCA appeal against a refusal by Telford Magistrates Court in April last year to convict a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation of causing unnecessary suffering to a magpie kept in a Larsen trap.
Norman Shinton set up the trap in the garden of his home at Little Dawley, Telford, Shropshire. He was accused of causing a single magpie unnecessary suffering as he used the bird over and over again in the summer of 2000, instead of "rotating" decoys.
An RSPCA inspector who visited his home found the bird dirty with primary feathers broken on both wings and injuries to its claws, consistent with its confinement in the trap over a period of weeks.
The cage did not have sufficient height, length or breadth to permit it to stretch its wings, contrary to the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Mr Justice Leveson said the use of the trap fell within the terms of the licence, and Telford district judge Philip Browning was right to acquit on that charge. But the district judge had gone wrong when he cleared Mr Shinton of causing the bird unnecessary suffering.
The judge said it was unnecessary to send the case back to the magistrates court for it to be reconsidered as the RSPCA had only brought the case to clarify the law.
Phil Wilson, chief superintendent of the RSPCA's prosecution department, said: "It is the RSPCA's view that these traps are inherently cruel."
He added: "There is no evidence that magpies have a significant effect on the songbird population."