Snares - a barbaric relic whose time is up

| 10th May 2016
At the Cleggan Lodge Estate, 8th April 2016, a snare covered with hare fur. Photo: League Against Cruel Sports.
At the Cleggan Lodge Estate, 8th April 2016, a snare covered with hare fur. Photo: League Against Cruel Sports.
Snares are one of humankind's earliest inventions, writes Bill Oddie, once essential to our survival as hunters. But their modern use by gamekeepers seeking to protect game birds on shooting estates from predators is a cruel and barbaric practice, with most of the victims non-target species like hares, badgers and deer.
The unavoidable fact is that snares do not discriminate. As well as foxes, they catch rabbits, hares, badgers, deer, and - most distressingly - cats and dogs. Moreover, death by snaring is likely to be slow and agonizing.

It can't have been easy being a caveman, living the life of a hunter gatherer.

The gathering part had some challenges- like having to shin up slippery tree trunks to get at the best fruit, or taking pot luck on munching on a plant that looked tasty but turned out to be deadly poisonous.

However, though the gathering might have been relatively rural, the hunting was hell. Meat wasn't easy to catch, whether it came in the form of a slavering jawed dinosaur, a leaping gazelle, or even a jet propelled small rodent or rabbit.

Prehistory hasn't left us a totally comprehensive catalogue of the flora and fauna of the time, but it is fair to assume that the vast majority of wildlife was either fierce, fast, or very good at hiding. No doubt the best hunters were pretty nifty with whatever missile they used but they also had to master the skills of tracking and stalking their quarry.

What the ancients really needed was a weapon that could be placed where animals were known to roam, and left until such time as the creature caught itself. Large pits disguised under leaves and branches so that animals fell in, were no doubt fairly productive, but digging them must've been hard slow work. What was needed was a sort of portable version. Thus prehistoric man invented the snare.

Simple, deadly, no longer needed

A snare is the very definition of ‘simple but deadly'. Basically, it is one or two sticks attached by a loop of plant fibre cord. Any animal that passes through the loop causes it to tighten, and the creature - animal or bird - is tethered until the hunter comes to release it and carry it off to fulfill the very necessary function of feeding human families, who - back in those prehistoric times - had very few alternatives to meat and veg.

Many, many thousands of years ago then, snares were a means to survival. And not only for food. The hunter made sure that he visited the trap regularly so that animals did not disfigure or maim themselves in their struggles. It wasn't an example of prehistoric animal welfare, it was a matter of keeping warm. Nobody wants a fur coat with rips and tears in it.

Of course, this was all long, long ago. A prehistoric soothsayer would no doubt have confidently predicted that such a rough hewn implement as a snare would soon by superseded by something less, well, primitive.

But he would've been wrong. Snares are still widely used, with as many as 240,000 set across England & Wales alone, many of them on shooting estates. Their function is the same - to trap animals - but the reason is different. No one is likely to make a jacket out of a fox that has died in agony, ripped its own flesh and whose fur is soaked with blood. No one would dare wear a badger fur cape. Nor is it likely that roast Muntjac will become a delicacy.

The unavoidable fact is that snares do not discriminate. As well as foxes, they catch rabbits, hares, badgers, deer, and - most distressingly - cats and dogs. Moreover, death by snaring is likely to be slow and agonizing.

So why are these animals being slaughtered? The answer is ironical indeed. Every day, countless wild creatures - and on occasion pet dogs and cats - are caught and killed on shooting estates to improve the survival of game birds, which are themselves destined to be shot. But they are not shot for their meat nor for their fur, but for fun.

The loop of death

During a clandestine visit I made to a grouse-shooting moor in Scotland last year, we kept undercover, since more than one game keeper has fired a warning shot at 'observers'.

It wasn't hard to find the snared area. We could smell it, or rather we could smell the 'stink pit'. This basically does what it says on the tin!  Not only tins, but also bottles, cartons and  a massive festering pile of discarded food and  rotting carcasses. Animals - wild and domestic - find it irresistible.

The whole thing was ringed by snares. They were only a metre or two apart, but the spaces had been blocked with twigs and small branches so that there was no other route available except through a 'loop of death'. We counted a hundred snares round that pit and there were no doubt other lines round the estate. They had been put there by the gamekeeper, at the instructions of the estate owner.

The birds are protected for the sole purpose of being shot by gunmen who have paid handsomely for a weekend's 'sport'. The snare barricades are erected to control - euphemism for kill! - foxes, who may prey on the young game birds.

The unavoidable fact though is that snares do not discriminate. As well as foxes, they catch rabbits, hares, badgers, deer, and - most distressingly - cats and dogs - an estimated 1.7 million animals per year across the UK. Moreover, death by snaring is likely to be slow and agonizing, leaving the animal bloody and disfigured. Certainly not in any condition to be made into a caveman's coat.

Time for our politicians to act!

My experience was not unique. Just last month, League Against Cruel Sports investigations officers discovered more shocking evidence of the cruelty of snares, this time on the Cleggan Lodge shooting estate, near Ballymena, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland. Footage from this investigation underscores the vicious and indiscriminate nature of snares. The harrowing video shows a hare caught in a snare which then tightened round its abdomen.

The League Investigations Officer described the suffering of the stricken animal: "In the terrified hare's struggle to escape, the snare became twisted round both its rear legs. We tried to gently remove the tightened wire which was cutting deeper and deeper into the animal.

"We rushed it to a vet who examined and treated it. At the time, she warned us that because of its severe injuries, the prognosis didn't look good. And sadly, despite medical treatment and after rallying for a couple of days, the hare died at a nearby animal sanctuary."

We found numerous examples of poor practice at Cleggan Lodge: almost all the snares were on fence lines; some snares were no longer free running as the snare was rusted or kinked; stops had become loose; and snares were reset where a badger had died.

This is consistent with a 2012 study by Defra found that although 95% of gamekeepers in England and Wales were aware of the Code of Practice in place for using snares, not a single fox snare operator they visited was fully compliant with the code.

But the legal situation is confused, with devolved administrations responsible for the issue, and different laws, regulations and voluntary codes of practice in place in each of the countries making up the UK. The League Against Cruel Sports is therefore calling on each Parliament to ban snares in their jurisdiction, whilst at the same time raising the issue at a UK-wide level through a potential debate in the House of Commons.

Personally, I find the idea of killing or maiming any living creature for fun utterly repugnant. Calling it a 'country sport' is unintentionally ironic. 'Blood sport' is at least more honest, though I dare say it is used less these days, which in itself is dishonest.

Is it possible that shooters are becoming just a little uncomfortable at being called 'blood sportsmen?' Let alone being accused of being less compassionate than cavemen! 



Petition: 'Ban snares!'

Bill Oddie is a conservationist, writer, composer, musician, comedian, artist, ornithologist, and television presenter. He is also Vice President for the League Against Cruel Sports. In 2003 he was awarded the OBE for his work in wildlife conservation. He first rose to fame as a member of TV comedy programme The Goodies.

Broadcasting: Bill's groundbreaking wildlife programmes for the BBC include: Springwatch/AutumnwatchHow to Watch WildlifeWild In Your GardenBirding with Bill OddieBritain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie and Bill Oddie Goes Wild.

Books include 'Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book' and 'Birding with Bill Oddie'.