An animal rights campaigner who posted videos of a distressed hare and fawn caught in snares has been found not guilty of nine charges of criminal damage and theft.
Doug Maw, who is campaigning for snares to be banned in England, filmed a screaming hare and a fawn running in circles caught in legal snares on farmland inside the South Downs national park. He then freed the animals.
After Maw posted videos of the animals caught in the wire nooses on social media last summer, he was arrested and charged with damaging and stealing dozens of snares and traps on the Duke of Norfolk’s Arundel estate.
A judge at Lewes crown court recorded not guilty verdicts for all the charges against Maw after the prosecution offered no evidence in a pre-trial hearing.
Edward Fitzalan-Howard, the 18th Duke of Norfolk, organised the queen’s funeral, played a key role in the king’s coronation and has co-written The Return of the Grey Partridge, a new book detailing his efforts to restore nature on his South Downs estate.
The duke, who is reportedly worth more than £100m, revived the endangered grey partridge from 11 birds on his 4,000-acre estate in 2003 to more than 2,000 in 2014. Other nationally declining species thriving on the estate include skylarks (up 57%), lapwing (up 71%) and linnet (up 94%). Curlew, a species threatened with extinction in southern England, are being incubated by the estate and released there to establish a new population.
Maw said the grey partridge’s revival – a key quarry in a traditional aristocratic shoot – came at the cost of native wildlife inadvertently being caught in snares set to catch foxes, which feed on partridge eggs and chicks.
He said of the snares: “They are supposed to target foxes but they are totally indiscriminate, they will catch anything. They are incredibly cruel. We’ve got videos of pheasants, dogs, badgers, deer, foxes and hares caught in them. I’ve been caught in a few.”
Maw, a former abattoir worker who became a vegan in the 1990s and is now an ultramarathon runner, was charged with damaging or taking 32 snares on the Duke of Norfolk’s estate and 43 Tully traps, a spring-trap designed to catch stoats, weasels and rats. He was also accused of damaging four Larsen traps – set to catch crows and other corvids – and a stoat-catching DOC trap.
Maw pleaded not guilty to all the charges but admitted damaging some snares on the duke’s land while he was freeing non-target species, such as the hare and fawn in the online videos.
Snares are designed to catch and hold target species such as foxes but studies suggest that about 70% of animals caught are “non-target” species, including dogs and cats. Field trials of one modern fox snare found that 39% of badgers and 68% of hares that entered the noose released themselves, but campaigners say many animals are injured and die.
Snares were banned in Wales last year and the Scottish government has promised to ban them, but they continue to be legally deployed across England. Last year a government petition signed by more than 100,000 people forced a parliamentary debate about the issue.
Simon Wild, who founded the National Anti-Snaring Campaign 30 years ago, said other South Downs estates including the Goodwood estate and the Cowdray estate had banned snares but the Norfolk estate continued to use them.
“The Norfolk estate is probably the most snared area in southern England in my experience,” Wild said. “Snares are inherently cruel because they have the cheesewire effect when an animal pulls on it. They have a devastating effect, particularly on badgers.”
A spokesperson for the Duke of Norfolk’s estate said Wild’s claims about the extent of the snare-setting were “completely unfounded”.
In a statement, Edward Norfolk said: “The Norfolk estate Peppering conservation project is widely acknowledged as one of the most successful and important examples of nature revival in England for red-listed species, including curlews, grey partridges and lapwings. Working closely with Natural England and other environmental organisations, Peppering is considered a ‘shining beacon of hope’ for nature conservation. This success has been achieved through enabling a suitable habitat, abundant food sources and legal predator control, including the use of humane cable restraints.”
The duke’s project, which receives government funding for environmentally friendly farming, has planted 18 miles of new hedges and established pesticide-free “conservation headlands” where 119 wild flower and arable “weed” species have been restored alongside conventional food production.
According to the duke, the project has faced “significant vandalism to equipment, including to humane cable restraints”, with a cost of more than £10,000.
The duke said the Norfolk farms estate withdrew its support for the prosecution against Maw and instead proposed a non-conviction restraining order – banning him from trespassing or inciting others to trespass on the duke’s estate – to prevent a prosecution that would have been costly to the crown. Maw previously rejected the offer of a restraining order and said he had wanted his case to go to a full trial by jury.
A CPS spokesperson said: “We can only prosecute cases where there is enough evidence for us to have a realistic chance of securing a conviction. Following changes to the evidence available in this case, this test was no longer met.”
A hearing on 7 February will decide if a restraining order should be placed on Maw.
The duke added: “If the recovery of biodiversity in this country that we so desperately need is to be achieved, including the reintroduction of the curlew breeding on the South Downs, it is crucial that those with a passion for nature and in a position of influence work together constructively with common sense towards the bigger picture. It is my sincere hope that our withdrawal of support for Mr Maw’s prosecution is recognised in this vein.”