Snares: legally binding

Our recent post about tunnel traps has led to online comments about snares, and the usual insensitive comments from industry lobbyists and trolls who ignore people’s genuine welfare concerns to insist that snares are a) legal, and b) don’t actually kill animals, just hold them (almost, they seem to want us to believe, in a loving cuddle before some kindly soul comes along and gently shoots them in the head).

So what’s the truth? Long story short, yes, while most people do think that snares are banned in the UK, incredibly snares are still legal here and yes, if used per instructions they are supposed to just hold an animal in place. But that’s leaving out the details of course. Details like pain and fear; malpractice; poor usage technique; criminal behaviour; and – perhaps just as importantly – why the heck these things are still legal anyway…


What is a snare?

Before we discuss all of that, how about a quick look at the snare itself. Snares have been used for thousands of years to trap animals. A fairly simple but inherently cruel design, they are essentially a loop set along a trail or suspended from a branch or small tree which catches an animal by the neck or leg as it walks into it. As the animal continues to move forward or struggles to free itself, the loop pulls tight. If the snare is made of strong enough material (so doesn’t snap) or can’t be dragged away, the animal will suffocate, its neck will dislocate, or it will be held where it was caught. It will then be beaten to death or shot.

Snares – mostly now made from thin steel wire rather than plant fibres – are still widely used around the world. They’re cheap to make, easy to use, light to carry, quickly replaced if you can’t quite remember where you left them, and – good news if you’re an ivory or bushmeat poacher – far quieter than a rifle so won’t alert forest or park rangers when you’re out committing wildlife crime. They’re basically an easy, low-skilled way to kill (or maim/injure) wildlife.


Snares in the UK

While the war on wildlife is a worldwide issue, and snares are without doubt an element of that war, we’d like to concentrate on the use of snares in the war on wildlife here in the UK. It’s their use here (the vast majority to catch foxes by the shooting industry, but they’re also used to kill rabbits, grey squirrels, and mink) that lobbyists are referring to when they say that snaring is legal, and that snares don’t actually kill animals when used by so-called ‘professionals’. Snaring to trap ‘pest animals’, they say, is not comparable at all with, for example, traplines in North America (where hundreds of thousands of animals are killed by weekend ‘hunters’ and fur trappers) or wire nooses in Africa and Asia (where whole forests are being emptied of large animals by snares set by poachers).

The end result is the same of course: a dead animal. But it is true to say that snares on sale and licenced for legal use in the UK have evolved from crude, wire nooses which strangle or dislocate to wire nooses which should back off in use. And that this evolution was driven by both research from Defra (which it’s claimed was heavily biased towards keeping snares rather than banning them when it drew up that research) and the shooting industry. While concerns from recreational shooters about ‘welfare’ certainly ring hollow (if you really care about wildlife stop killing it for fun), lobbyists say that modern snares are more selective than previous models which, in field trials during 2007 – 2009, were found to have regularly trapped not only foxes but badgers and hares.


Snares and UK law

The four UK administrations have separate legislation and codes of practice covering snaring. In Scotland, England and Wales, the main legislation is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and in Northern Ireland, the Wildlife Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. Scotland’s Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 (the WANE Act) added extra legislation on eg training and attaching operator identification tags to all traps, but all legislation essentially says the same thing. Snares used in the UK to trap foxes should now be what are called ‘free running’ types, which means that rather than just strangling and suffocating an animal, the noose should relax when (or if) an animal stops struggling, or be fitted with a stop so that it can’t tighten beyond a certain point; or ‘break away’ types which have a weak link which is supposed to allow a larger, stronger non-target animal (like a badger) to break the noose and escape unharmed.

In effect, the snare is now considered to be a ‘restraint device’ rather than a ‘killing device’. Older ‘self-locking’ types which keep tightening as the animal struggles to death are illegal. However rabbit snares may be used in England without any restrictions except having the landowners permission. It’s worth adding that no bird of any species can be legally snared in the UK.

Where snares are set is also covered by law and by codes of practice. Snares must not be set where the animal might hang itself or become entangled (for example, by jumping over an adjacent fence), or close to water where it could drown. They must never be placed on or near to an active badger sett (or on the runs radiating from it) or where livestock could be caught. They mustn’t be used in areas regularly and legitimately used for the exercise of domestic animals, near public footpaths or housing (which, incidentally, undermined the very few trolls defending the UK’s ‘last fur trapper’ David Sneade who killed hundreds of foxes in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park)

By law, snares must be inspected at least once every day. Somewhat bizarrely, this is because of ‘welfare considerations’. Yes, animals caught in snares are (supposedly) ‘protected’ by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which places an onus on operators to take reasonable steps to ensure that the welfare needs of all animals under their control (including those caught in a snare) are met. Operators should ensure that the animal is protected from pain and suffering (until it is ‘dispatched’ humanely, which industry lobbyists suggest is best done by blowing its brains out – presumably as it sits quiet and still after finding itself trapped for up to 24 hours and as the shooter walks towards it?). I don’t know about you, but the idea of an operator claiming to protect an animal from suffering (caused by fear, pain, dehydration, attacks from other animals etc) as it is held in a completely unnatural situation that same operator created, leaves me speechless…


Good old Uncle Snare

In reality of course, snares are not the ‘kindly uncle of traps’ that lobbyists would like us to believe.

Free-running snares can tangle or kink, meaning the noose can’t relax. It’s sometimes very difficult to tell some free-running types from self-locking types, anyway, and it’s often the simple placement of a bolt which determines whether the snare is free-running or (can be converted into) a self-locking one.

The industry likes to talk of ‘target’ and ‘non-target’ animals, trying to suggest that snares can somehow distinguish between ‘bad’ foxes and ‘good’ everything else. The truth of course is that snares don’t discriminate in the way that the shooting industry does, and a wide range of species are caught in snares, including Mountain Hares and badgers. Cats and dogs are routinely caught in them. Famously, even runners in the Peak District have been caught in them.

And while the industry may try to greenwash its use of snares and its considerations for animal welfare, wild animals – whether predator or prey animals – don’t behave passively under stressful conditions. Frightened, trapped animals will always try to escape. The internet is awash with images showing animals that have been almost cut in half by snares, that have died wrapped up in them, that – rather than sit and pass the time of day reflecting on how nice it is not to run around for a change – have tried to gnaw off their own limbs to escape them.

On top of which, the industry’s vaunted codes of practice are just that – a guide to best practice. Some people may try to do the right thing and adhere to them, but, and excuse for us for being cynical, we all know how often corners are cut or cost-savings made where ‘operators’ think they can get away with it. Legal, modern snares are more expensive than a simple wire noose, and some estates are using many thousands of them at any one time. There is ample evidence that not all operators check traps as often as they should, and it is simply impossible anyway to enforce regulations for a practice that often takes place on private land in remote locations.


Who uses snares in the UK?

The big question remains, though, why are snares still legal in the UK, when they’ve been banned across most of Europe (we’re one of only five countries within the European Union which permits the use of snares, the others being Republic of Ireland, France, Spain and Belgium)?

Snares are largely used by gamekeepers of course. On shooting estates. They are used to kill huge numbers of wild animals so that huge numbers of other wild animals can be blasted out of the sky for fun. And because government after government has decided that shooting living targets is a legitimate practice, and because estate-owners tend to be rich and powerful, snaring has been allowed when common sense and any understanding at all of wild animal sentience would tell you it should be banned.

In fact, the defence for using snares is often presented as a straight-forward unqualified assertion, something that you and me should see no need to question. The Scottish government, for example, said in 2013 that “Pest and predator control is an integral part of land management in Scotland. Just as you may wish to trap or remove mice from your kitchen, land managers frequently need to reduce the impact of pests and predators on their crops or livestock“.

Throwing around the words ‘need’, ‘management’, and ‘pest’ doesn’t convince quite as many people as it used to do. We’re much better at spotting what it means: protecting the shooting industry’s profits. We know that ‘crops or livestock’ is a euphemism for animals being lined up to kill. We have a better sense of animal welfare and animal sentience too: we could remove a mouse humanely, or just tidy up the kitchen and block access to it.

Press and media reports rarely point out several other key facts either. The industry fights to keep snares ‘legal’ partly because they don’t require employers to pay someone to monitor them full-time: they’re a lazy, cheap way of killing animals. More importantly, perhaps, it’s high-time reporters understood that it’s the shooting industry itself that is creating opportunities for predator numbers to build by providing them with atypically high numbers of prey – grouse, pheasants, and partridges. Red Grouse numbers on driven shooting estates are unnaturally high (which also leads to disease), and it’s estimated that just 30% of the 50million+ pheasants released EVERY YEAR are shot: many of the rest are available to generalist predators like foxes. If you don’t want hundreds of mice in your kitchen, maybe stop pouring sacks of grain on your damn floor…


So can we do anything about it?

Can we just get rid of snares if we find them? Just as we did when we looked at tunnel traps recently, we feel obliged to point out that while foxes and rabbits are barely protected by law, ironically snares get the sort of protection that any decent society would give its wildlife! It is an offence ‘to damage or remove snares and to disrupt a lawful activity, such as snaring‘. How an operator could detect whether a snare has been closed by someone using a twig or a pen is up for discussion, but getting caught doing so is not. If you find a snare that you think is being used illegally though, do report it (how a layperson who rarely sees a snare can recognise an illegal snare or who to report it to isn’t covered here – please go to Snarewatch run by the excellent Edinburgh-based charity OneKind or the National Anti Snaring Campaign’s Advice page).

We may not be allowed by law to actively protect wildlife from snares on the ground, but pressure has been building on snaring over recent years.

According to the League Against Cruel Sports, the majority of the public want snares banned: a poll they commissioned found that 77% of the British public think snares should be illegal (Ipsos MORI, 2014), and in 2015 68% of MPs also supported a ban. In 2016 the League published a striking short video called ‘The Silent Enemy’ which featured an actor caught in a snare gasping painfully for breath. Also in 2016 a Care2 petition, ‘Tell Scottish Government to Ban Fox Snares‘, attracted nearly 270,000 signatures. The Welsh government came close to banning snares in 2017 but caved into shooting industry pressure and opted instead for further reviews and assurances that snares would be used legally from now on (despite saying in their own report that they had “been made aware of 20 snaring incidents –15 involved non-target species (cats, badgers and dogs) being caught or found dead in a snare, 2 involved foxes and 3 incidents involved the setting of snares in areas that do not comply with the Code” since just 2015). Revive – the coalition for grouse moor reform – recently published a damning report called ‘Untold Suffering’ which ‘documents the extent to which animals are being killed and subjected to negative welfare impacts to ensure grouse stocks are kept artificially high to be shot for entertainment’.

Grassroots organisations like Moorland Monitors are taking the fight to the grouse moor estates by setting up groups to scour moorlands for traps and snares as part of evidence-gathering to prove just how many of these things are out there and how they’re being used.

We will get more chances to speak out against snares too. Charities we’re speaking with see opportunities to move on the issue. OneKind, for example, has long campaigned for a ban on the sale, manufacture and use of snares in Scotland and say they may be petitioning the government soon. They are using the hashtag #EndWildlifeKillings across social media – particularly important as snaring begins again on Scotland’s grouse moors in preparation for yet another ‘inglorious’ season of shooting.

Perhaps the best thing most of us can do, though, is to inform ourselves and talk to family and friends about snares. Explain that they are still being allowed in the UK to support the shooting industry, and that the shooting industry is partly responsible for creating ‘the problem’ they claim needs ‘managing’. That the so-called ‘welfare considerations’ put in place by the shooting industry are self-serving and don’t reflect real-life scenarios or how wild animals behave in traps.

That, yes, snares are indeed legal but that any society that wants to claim it has compassion and kindness, a love for animals, and a genuine desire for animal welfare wouldn’t allow them anywhere near our countryside or our wildlife.


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