In a large wooded area lies a game bird pen, housing pheasant reared for sport shooting. Surrounding the enclosure are snares designed to capture any predators that may be lurking in the scrub, threatening the bird stocks.
Caught in one of these devices is a badger. Although death is not the intention of the snare, the sharp wire has wrapped itself around the badger’s body and caused significant injuries to its abdomen, chest and neck. Struggling, bleeding and exhausted, the animal could remain in this state for up to 48 hours until a gamekeeper comes to free it. At this point, if its injuries are severe, the badger is likely to be shot or clubbed to death and dumped in a stink pit, a place where other animals unfortunate enough to have died as a result of these traps are kept.
This is not a unique situation. Every year about 750,000 animals get caught in snares; two-thirds of them are badgers, domestic cats and protected species.
“It is commonplace for snares to lodge around the chest, abdomen or legs rather than the neck,” explains Professor Ranald Munro, a leading veterinary pathologist. “In such instances, the stop restraint is ineffective and the wire cuts through skin and muscle and, eventually, bone. Badgers may be eviscerated when the abdominal wall is cut through.
“Amputation of the lower limb and foot by a snare is well documented in deer. These unfortunate animals suffer immensely.”
Snares are used up to 42 million times each year throughout England alone. This number has been on the rise for several years, primarily due to the expansion of shooting estates, which release up to 50 million non-indigenous, cage-reared birds into the wild each year – birds that landowners want to be protected from predators. For these reasons it is argued that snares are essential for pest control.
However, the League Against Cruel Sports, which campaigns for an end to cruelty to animals in the name of sport, argues that the use of snares is cruel, indiscriminate and wholly unnecessary. It cites a 2012 study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – the first to provide quantified data on the use of snares – which found that of the 115,436 landowners in England today just 4.4 per cent used fox snares and 1.4 per cent used rabbit snares, proving that snaring is “clearly not essential for the control of foxes or rabbits”. Equally, statistics show that despite millions of game birds being released on shooting estates, only between 1 and 3 per cent is lost to foxes.
Indeed, killing a fox can simply lead to the takeover of its territory by another fox and so can only be a short-term solution. As such, the League says that snaring is not only inhumane, but also fruitless.
There are various laws in place regarding the use of snares. The UK is a signatory of the Bern Convention, which contains restrictions on the use of indiscriminate means of capture and the killing of animals. Snares are included in this. However, exemptions can be made if certain conditions are satisfied and there are no satisfactory alternatives.
To ensure that the UK is compliant with the Bern Convention, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits the use of self-locking snares; lays out the requirement to inspect snares once in every 24-hour period; and bans the use of snares to catch various protected mammals, including otters and badgers. In addition, the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 prohibits the use of certain non-selective methods of taking or killing certain wild animals.
There are also guidelines that aim to control the use of legal snares, including a voluntary code of practice, introduced in 2005. However, seven years after its introduction, Defra raised concerns about the code’s enforceability, based on the department’s research, which had found that no one was fully compliant with its requirements.
The wide use of snares seems to contravene the Bern Convention and would suggest that regulations are not working. Part of the problem with enforcement is that it can be very difficult to distinguish between snares that are legal, such as neck snares, which use stops to prevent the snare from closing all the way round an animal’s neck, and those that are illegal, such as leg-hold snares, which involve a treadle plate and a spring mechanism that pulls the snare tight around the animal’s foot.
It has been suggested that one way to resolve this situation is to issue licences to landowners. This would require them to use only legal snares and subject them to inspections. Anyone found to be flouting the rules would have his licence revoked.
However, this in itself is fraught with challenges, says the League. As it points out in its Manifesto to End Snaring, who would inspect properties to ensure snares are used correctly? Would this body have automatic rights of access to land for inspections?
“If there is no right of access, there is no means of monitoring the use of snares,” says Joe Duckworth, the League’s chief executive. “So if Defra is minded to adopt a licensing system, this should only be done once a monitoring system is in place, and the monitoring organisations must have the automatic right of unannounced entry to monitor that snares are being used in accordance with the licence.”
Even if such a monitoring system is set up it will still be difficult to police. When snares are found on a private estate it is very difficult to prove who set them – the landowner, the gamekeeper, a poacher?
Systems that require licencees to use tagged snares, as is the practice in Scotland, have had some effect. However, they are still not perfect, Duckworth argues. “All this means is that the licensee will set tagged snares carefully. There is nothing to stop them setting other, untagged snares. Even if someone is found taking an animal out of an illegal snare, it is impossible to prove that they set it.”
Scotland, with its tighter controls, has provided an opportunity to assess how effective enforcement could be. The results have not been encouraging. On numerous occasions, the League and other animal welfare organisations have found repeated breaches and codes being blatantly ignored.
In the League’s view, the most effective option is to make the use of all snares illegal and to require landowners to report any snares found on their land. That would help ensure that people could not claim in self-defence that a snare discovered on their property was set by someone else.
“Such a system is not perfect, but requiring landowners to remove any illegal snares found on their land would avoid many of the current problems,” Duckworth says.
Banning snares does not mean that land will become overrun with vermin. The League’s Manifesto highlights a number of humane alternatives to rabbit and fox control, exclusion fencing being the most effective option if done correctly. This involves the use of electric fences above ground and fences buried below to prevent animals from digging underneath.
Scare devices or chemical repellents are another option. Rural foxes are frightened of new elements in their environment, so this factor can be used to deter them from areas where other animals are being conserved. Changing the placement or nature of the scare devices will help stop foxes becoming habituated to them, and make their effect last longer.
Public support for the League’s proposals is high. An online petition by the League, which calls for a complete ban on the manufacture, sale and use of snares in England and Wales, received more than 58,500 signatures – demonstrating just how this issue has resonated with the public. Meanwhile, constituency polling across Scotland during the passage of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 provided clear evidence of the importance of animal issues to Scottish voters – roughly 77 per cent of respondents demanded that snares be banned.
“Most people in the UK actually think it is already illegal, and since our snaring campaign began many people have been shocked to hear that it still goes on across the whole of the UK and is perfectly legal,” says Duckworth. “We would urge people to join our campaign to end the manufacture, importation, sale and use of snares across the whole of the UK.”
Those parliamentary candidates keen to use this public feeling in their favour will find friends elsewhere in Westminster. An early-day motion calling on the government to end the manufacture, sale and use of snares received cross-party support from 93 MPs, and even Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has expressed his concern. During a Commons debate on fox-hunting, he said: “I am completely convinced that trapping and snaring are hideously cruel.”
Adrian Sanders, the Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay and vice-president of the League, sums up the situation. “Snaring is cruel and unnecessary and its indiscriminate nature is intolerable,” he says. “I hope the League’s Manifesto and the overwhelming support for the petition can encourage the government that a ban on snaring is necessary.”
Until that ban is achieved, wild and domestic animals will continue to suffer slow, painful and unnecessary deaths.
Supported by League Against Cruel Sports.