Snares have been criticised for perceived low-target selectivity and for causing very poor animal welfare. Since 1981 there has been active lobbying in the UK for a complete ban on their use, including six Early Day Motions tabled in Parliament during 2000 to 2009.
In 2004, Defra asked the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) to set up and chair an Independent Working Group on Snares (IWGS), with the mission of drawing up a Code of Practice for snare users. Chairman James Kirkwood gathered together a team of people with appropriate expertise, including representatives of the shooting industry and of animal welfare bodies, veterinarians, and scientists working in wildlife biology or animal welfare. The IWGS reported to Defra in 2005, with a Code of Practice (CoP) that was swiftly adopted by Defra, and endorsed by user groups. However, the IWGS also pointed to a lack of knowledge on certain issues.
One scenario that clearly did lead to prolonged suffering on occasion arose if a captured animal broke the snare and escaped with the snare noose attached. The tightened noose might open up and fall off again; but if cable ends were frayed this was unlikely. The CoP recommended two safeguards:
- That the snare should have two effective swivels
- That the components should be chosen so that the weakest point of the snare was at the eye
The latter ensured that the noose itself would open before any other part of the snare broke.
This deliberate weak point was valuable in itself, but it could be designed to open at a particular strain such that stronger non-target species could escape while weaker target species were retained. In North America such ‘breakaways’ had already been developed and tested, and were commercially available. However, in North American contexts, the differential between target and non-target species was generally large (e.g. between domestic livestock or wild deer species as non-targets, and foxes or coyotes as targets).
In the UK too it was desirable to release any deer caught in snares, but UK working practices were such that deer were infrequently caught. Here, the non-target species of greatest concern was the badger, and appreciable overlap in strength and weight was expected between foxes and badgers. Was it possible to design a breakaway that would allow the selective release of badgers while retaining foxes?
The IWGS recommended that improvements to snare hardware should be researched. In 2006, feeling that we had the necessary expertise, the GWCT undertook this work on its own. We designed the best fox snare we could, then compared its performance in the field against that of pre-existing models. For this field comparison, we enlisted the help of 34 professional gamekeepers, who undertook to mix our snares in with their own at random, and to document in detail how each snare performed. This self-selecting sample of gamekeepers cannot be taken as representative of snare-users in general; compared with gamekeepers nationally, a lower proportion of this group had attended a training course on snare use, and several of them had particular concerns about non-targets which they hoped would be resolved by using our snares. What they do allow is a comparison of the experimental snare against others, irrespective of 'operator' circumstances such as skill, target and non-target densities, landscape, etc.