Q: What are the key controversies surrounding snares?
A: Criticisms of snares focus on:
Q: Does anyone have a reliable measure of the scale of these problems?
A: The 2012 Defra study set out to estimate the scale of these perceived problems. Inevitably, the resulting figures are approximations, with considerable uncertainties attached. But we have reasonable estimates of the scale on which snares are used in England and Wales, and a good understanding of how often and why animals get injured in snares.
Some organisations have constructed figures by extrapolating from small samples, which are unlikely to be representative of all the situations in which snares are used, or of current working practices. For instance, the humaneness assessment in the Defra study involved a single operator working in one set of circumstances, while assessment of the extent of use was made across a random sample of landholdings throughout England and Wales. To multiply one by the other to estimate the total number of captures creates a nonsense. Densities of foxes and non-targets vary enormously from place to place and even from time to time. This will be reflected in operator practices and in consequent capture histories.
Injury and death
Q: What percentage of snare-caught foxes are found injured or dead?
A: In an extensive field study involving 429 fox captures, we showed that, given good practice, less than 1% of snare-caught foxes were injured or dead as a result of capture. The GWCT estimated in 1995 that gamekeepers used snares to capture something like 9,500 foxes. 1% of this would be 95 foxes. This is unavoidably a very rough estimate, but to put it into perspective, the Mammal Society estimated that 100,000 foxes are killed by cars each year; an additional unknown number are injured by road traffic.
Q: Do animals released from a snare go on to develop life-threatening conditions?
A: Some people believe that animals held in snares may seem all right at the time of release, but go on to develop a life-threatening necrotic condition. There is no evidence that this commonly occurs. On the contrary, foxes and badgers caught in snares by scientists for radio-tagging have typically not shown abnormal behaviour or higher mortality. In GWCT studies, some individual foxes have been re-captured in snares with no apparent ill effects.
Q: What have veterinary studies of captured foxes revealed?
A: In a 2012 study by Defra, post-mortem examination of 14 snared foxes by very experienced veterinary pathologists showed that, where the code of practice was followed, injuries were typically absent or of a minor nature. Furthermore, there were no injuries hidden inside the animal that would not be anticipated from external examination.
Accidental capture of pets
Q: Are snares a risk to pets?
A: An operator following the code of practice will not be setting snares close to houses or on footpaths or public land, where pets might get caught. In the GWCT study of 34 snare users, only 1 out of 1,296 captures was a domestic pet, a dog that was released unharmed.
Q: Why does the RSPCA quote figures suggesting pets are commonly caught?
A: They have a different ‘window’ on the same activity. Our knowledge of responsible snare use comes from intensive monitoring of practitioners over long periods of time and includes all captures. Experience of snares among RSPCA inspectors and vets is heavily skewed to cases that have already gone wrong, where careless or irresponsible snare use has resulted in the capture of pets or injury to wild animals.
Q: Why is there such a disparity of views?
A: The puzzle, for the last 20 years or so, has been how to marry the grisly cases brought to public attention by anti-snaring campaigners, in which both wild animals and pets caught in a snare have clearly experienced immense suffering, with the much more positive picture of snare use during studies by biologists. After a lot of research and development into snare use and design, we now have a good understanding of why these perspectives are so different.
Accidental capture of wildlife
Q: Are snares a risk to other wildlife?
A: It is not possible to eliminate the risk of catching non-target wildlife, but a good deal can be done to minimise it and to avoid injury while the animal is held captive.
Q: How are snares in the UK designed to minimise these risks?
A: The codes of practice prescribe snare design features and working practices that minimise these risks. This is science-based. For instance, snares now have a stop, which limits the loop closing beyond the size required to trap a fox. On the new GWCT ‘break-away’ snare, the position of the stop is determined to allow hares to self-release by pulling their heads out. In our field experiment 68% of captured hares self-released; a further 24% (i.e. 92% in total) were held but were fit for release on discovery.
Q: How does the local hare population respond to fox control and snare use?
A: Hare populations respond very positively to fox control provided the habitat is good. This remains true even where snaring forms part of the fox control, despite the accidental captures of hares. (See GWCT research on hares and predator control).
Q: Has anyone estimated the percentage of the badger population trapped in snares?
A: Yes. In 1995 we estimated that less than 1% of the badger population was captured in a snare set by a gamekeeper. Many or most of these would have been uninjured and fit for release, and since 1995 we have substantially improved snares and recommended operating practices. In contrast, about 50,000 badgers are estimated to be killed on the roads annually and an unknown number injured in the same way.
Q: How can snare design and operation minimise the risk of injuring a badger?
A: Badgers are sometimes caught in snares intended for foxes, but again this can be minimised by using well-designed snares and careful operating practices. The new GWCT snare has a ‘break-away’ device on the cable, which opens the loop if an animal stronger than a fox pulls at the snare. During field trials of this snare, 39% of accidentally captured badgers self-released and were not retained, and 73% of those that were retained were set free by the operator (i.e. 83% in total). The 17% of casualties were mostly caused by entanglement, which could have been avoided given better awareness of this risk among the snare users. Now that we understand the source of this problem, the code of practice and training material have been duly strengthened.