Fox snares, nesting birds and legislation

Fox in snare among trees – risk of fox being fully or partially suspended. (Photo from Somerset County Gazette)

Fox in snare on fence, resulting in it being partially suspended.

Swallow’s nest in outbuilding.

A recent story in the Somerset County Gazette took my interest as a further demonstration of how far behind wildlife legislation is in England and Wales.

Police had been called to the rotting body of a fox in a snare on a fence line adjoining a footpath on a Somerset farm. The group finding the rotting fox also found a live fox in a snare and released it. They had photographed both foxes and the photo of the live snared fox was reproduced in the newspaper, though the paper decided not to publish the image of the rotting fox.

The officer who went investigate the incident was unable to find the decomposing fox or any snares but spoke to the landowner. According to the news report the landowner admitted he had forgotten to remove the dead fox.

Avon and Somerset police have rightly been criticised over the poor investigation. A decomposing carcass immediately suggests that the checking of the snares has not been within the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The lack of knowledge and lack of guile seems to indicate that the officer attending was not a wildlife crime officer. It is doubtful that an officer trained to deal with wildlife crime would have gone to the landowner before again contacting the group who found the foxes and asking better directions. From personal experience it is certainly not always easy to find a location without a grid reference or some focal point to aim for, so there is no shame in quietly pulling out and getting more accurate information.  He also seems to have been unaccompanied, presumably making the admission by the landowner inadmissible in court through lack of corroboration. He is also reported as having reminded the landowner to check his snares every day in future, effectively giving him a warning.

Aside from the police failings in this case there are also government failings. The law relating to the use of snares is woefully behind in England and Wales compared with Scotland. Plugging a glaring gap in the law in Scotland, way back in 2003, arose from us in Tayside finding a snared fox that had clearly been dead for several days. There was no doubt in my mind that the snare operator had not checked his snares over that period, but when interviewed, he claimed that he had checked the snares every day, had found a fox caught, which was dead, and hadn’t bothered removing it.

This was clearly a major loophole in the law which we reported to the Scottish Government. To their credit the legislation was changed the following year and the relevant section relating to the checking of snares now reads:

Section 11B(2)  Any person who while carrying out such an inspection —

  • finds an animal caught by the snare must, during the course of the inspection, release or remove the animal (whether it is alive or dead)

There is also a specific section in the Scottish version of the Act that prohibits snares being set at a place where the animal caught is likely to become fully or partially suspended. This could relate to snares being set on a fence as one of the fox snares in this episode appears to have been, or set among trees (as in the photo in the newspaper), where the animal is likely to become tangled and fully or partially suspended.

Many people would still rather have the use of snares banned but at least the improvements in snaring legislation in Scotland in 2004 and 2011 have resulted in more professionalism by the operators and consequently less suffering by the victims.

Following on from a recent discussion on Twitter about disturbance of nesting birds the law in England and Wales gives far less protection to nesting birds than the law in Scotland. The Wildlife and Countryside Act relating to England and Wales states:

‘if any person intentionally kills, injures or takes any wild bird; takes, damages or destroys a nest whilst in use or being built; or takes / destroys an egg of a wild bird, he shall be guilty of an offence’.

There is also an offence of disturbance to a nesting bird included in Schedule 1 of the Act.

Intent is always much more difficult to prove and it is helpful for investigative purposes that the same section in Scotland states that the disturbance can be intentional or reckless. In addition, the section goes on to state that it is an offence if a person intentionally or recklessly obstructs or prevents any wild bird from using its nest.

I can give two examples that could have constituted offences to nesting birds by preventing them from using their nest. The first related to a kestrel nest in a quarry. There was to be some construction work in the quarry and a birdwatcher was concerned this work would keep the kestrel off its nest. We made enquiries at the time and indeed the work would have caused problems to the bird as it was to be right under the nest site. The farmer knew of the nest but never considered the work would affect the bird. When this was pointed out to him he agreed to begin the work at the far end of the quarry so that by the time he was anywhere near the kestrel nest site the chicks would be fledged.

In the second case, work lasting a whole day was to be done in a small outhouse attached to a house that was being renovated. A neighbour let us know of this intended work, and said she had pointed out the nesting swallows in the shed to the workmen. They said they would work quietly but that would have made no difference as they would have been in the outhouse and would have kept the swallows from feeding their young, which could be seen peeping over the edge of the nest.

We hatched a plan with the neighbour, which kept everyone happy and allowed the birds to be fed.  The men started work just after 0900 and the neighbour took out a tray of tea and scones to the men at 1030, with the men happily agreeing to take a half-hour break away from the outhouse.  They left the outhouse clear between 1200 and 1300 for lunch, and had another tray of tea and buns (and a half hour break) at 1500. The men finished work just after 1600 and everyone was happy with the outcome, with the neighbour reporting that the swallows fledged successfully. There are sometimes routes to success without resorting to prosecution.

There are many examples of where birds have been obstructed or prevented from using their nest. The most common relates to birds that nest under slates or tiles and repairs are carried out that keeps the bird off the nest over a long period, with the result that eggs are chilled or chicks are starved. In a worst case scenario they may be deliberately blocked out of the nest as a result of the work. There is still a bit of work to do to address these shortfalls in legislation in England and Wales.

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