4 Minute Read
Written by Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education
With Defra due to undertake a call for evidence on the future of fox snares, there has never been a better moment to make the distinction between a modern humane cable restraint that meets international standards, and the cheap and nasty wires that went before. Now, the public perception, and I hazard that of some GWCT members, is that snares are barbaric, catching anything that happens along, and causing a slow and painful death by strangulation, but please read on. This is just not true; a good quality snare, when properly set, is highly selective. What is more, whatever it catches should be not just alive, but physically unharmed, which means the foxes we are after can be humanely killed, while occasional non - targets can be safely released.
Why fox control is important
I may be teaching granny to suck eggs, but controlling fox numbers is crucial to good game management and the conservation of declining ground nesting birds. Foxes are present in our countryside at a much higher density than nature intended, as a result of human activities. Everything from food scraps left in the layby by lunchtime motorists, through road-kill, to fallen livestock helps to feed foxes and maintain their population. This in turn means that they impose high and at times intolerable levels of predation pressure on a wide range of game and other wildlife species including many that are in serious trouble; think lapwing, curlew and corn bunting, as well as black grouse, grey partridge and many others. You could very reasonably argue that we humans have a duty to control foxes, to prevent this from getting out of hand.
Why snares are important
Even with modern aids such as night vision and thermal imaging, those who shoot foxes face a fundamental problem; if you cannot see it, you cannot shoot it. Add in safety considerations over where the bullet will go if the fox is missed, and you quickly realise that shooting cannot be the only way to control fox populations. This applies especially in the spring, when rapidly growing vegetation makes it even harder to see the target, just at the time of year when the wildlife we are concerned about is at its most vulnerable.
On the other hand, a properly set humane cable restraint can work as well now as at any other time. The wire noose involved is a minimalist device that catches the fox completely unawares; it remains the only method of control that we have that does not require some sort of negotiation with the fox, so foxes never become shy of the device. They will surely not allow themselves to get caught in the same place twice, and if you leave your scent on the noose, you must expect the fox to shy away, but they never become shy of the wire itself, even if caught multiple times in the cause of scientific research.
A decade of Intensive Scientific Research
The GWCT has been involved in fox snaring research for many years. Our starting point was the fact that our early radio tracking work involved the use of snares to catch the foxes in the first place. This convinced us that they need not cause significant harm to either foxes or non-target animals if they were well made and set.
So, when the calls for a ban began to be really insistent, in the early years of the current century, GWCT began a programme of research to develop the most selective and effective snare that we could. The result is the DB snare, named after the late David Bird who helped us enormously, particularly with sourcing components to test.
What Makes a Good Cable Restraint?
A good cable restraint needs to close quickly around the neck when an animal enters. It then needs to hold without causing harm, which means good swivels are essential, because whatever you catch will get tangled up in the wire if it cannot spin freely. A stop on the noose to prevent it closing too tightly stops any risk of strangling, and allows smaller non–target animals to back out. Provided you then remember to set your “wire” away from possible entanglements, like fences, gates and saplings, whatever you catch will be alive and uninjured. This remains the only method of catching a fox that has been shown to meet the rigorous needs of the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards.
The Fine Detail
Even the cable that the snare is made of makes a difference. A stiffer noose is more stable in windy situations, and less inclined to close if something brushes past, but the risk of springing back open is greater when the tension relaxes, and that can lead to foxes backing out. The DB has a softer cable, which closes more quickly, leading to less escapes, and greater certainty of catching round the neck.
Cheaper snares maybe available but they invariably have rubbish swivels, which do not actually turn under pressure. Good cable restraints have proper fishing swivels of known breaking strain, as these really work, meaning less risk of injuring whatever is caught, and no chance of the wire kinking and breaking. It is also essential to have two, so that there is a back-up if one of them jams.
With the help of working gamekeeper volunteers, GWCT carried out extensive research on where to fit the stop, and landed on 26cm from where the wire runs through the eye. This gives the maximum noose size at which foxes are still reliably held, but allows most smaller non-targets, and especially hares, to back out. Going smaller does nothing to improve fox retention, but increases captures of other animals. The other key feature of the DB snare is a breakout at the eye. This is a weak link that pops open under extreme pressure, allowing bigger and stronger non-target animals like badgers the chance to break out, without ending up with a broken snare still wrapped around them.
Working out where a fox will poke its nose, and outlining it in a noose of about 15 by 20 centimetres is a remarkable skill to develop, so it is important to understand fox behaviour. The animal is most predictable when trotting gently along in the open. So, users should have confidence to set their cable restraint in very open situations, with nothing nearby that might cause entanglement and subsequent harm. The first furrow of the field and tramlines in growing cereal crops make excellent sites as do tracks across pasture, provided there are no livestock present.
If you are new to modern cable restraints, the best ways to use them mean a bit of a change of approach for many users, and I see myself doing things very differently from 30 years ago. But I am no less successful; indeed, I am quite confident that I catch foxes more effectively now that I understand the new system. It really is true that the GWCT’s research team have some insights that the ordinary user will never have – unlike most, they put radio tags on foxes and let them go, learning a huge amount in the process. By putting the hardware out to trial with working gamekeepers, they were also able collate experiences that no single individual could accumulate. All this knowledge is distilled into the GWCT’s fox snaring training course, which takes just half a day. Any user who has not yet done the course really should book themselves a place.
Box – Codes of Practice
Something over fifteen years ago, Defra published a code of practice for snare use, which was drafted by an independent working group that it convened. That code was largely based on the GWCT’s experience from its scientific research. Ten years of further work has resulted in a few small refinements, but the basics remain the same. A few of years ago, the Welsh Government adopted the updated code, rather than giving in to calls for a total ban. By then it had become a joint code supported by all the relevant game management and farming organisations. Since then, an identical code has been published in England; this time an industry code, with ministerial endorsement. Anyone who sets fox snares but does not follow the code is letting the side down. It is available as a download on all the relevant organisation websites.
Respond to the Defra Call for Evidence
If, having read this little blog, you believe that banning “snares” would amount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater, please respond to the Defra call for evidence when it is launched. We owe it to our threatened wildlife, and especially ground nesting birds, to see to it that modern humane cable restraints remain available to wildlife managers as a vital tool in controlling fox populations.
This article first appeared in Shooting Times