Rabbit snaring is a long-standing tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador. For many decades, the snowshoe hare has provided sustenance, recreation and an excuse to spend time in the woods to many lovers of the outdoors.
Although native to Labrador, the hare was introduced to the island in the 1860s. Way to go, guys, whoever you were. Introducing non-native species is no longer considered an ecologically sound principle, but I’m applauding this one, along with brown trout and moose.
There’s no doubt that rabbits, as we call them — although they’re actually hares — have been an important food source that has helped feed many rural families in lean times. There’s a common presumption that rabbit is nutritionally useless: zero protein, you’d starve eating it. This is simply not true. Rabbit is higher in protein than chicken.
So, where did this starvation notion come from? If you dig deep enough you’ll find that most myths have some basis in truth. The problem is with the misinterpretation of the facts. I’ll tell you all about this another day, along with some of my favourite rabbit recipes. Eating rabbit at least once a week sustained me through university.
I spoke of our rabbit-catching tradition. I think this is especially true in central Newfoundland. I remember from my Rothermere House college days, the students I knew from Gander and Grand Falls frequently chatted about days spent rabbit slipping with their dads. I wonder, is that still true?
I lived in the Airport Town in the early 1970s; my father was construction supervisor for the building of the Frazer Mall and the Gander Arts and Recreation Centre.
I remember him talking fondly about several labourers from the Gander Bay area, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth sort of men. They would quit their jobs in November to go into the woods rabbit catching. My father permitted this and would hire them back right after Christmas.
I think Dad understood them, being an outdoorsman himself. In fact, I think he was jealous. A full month in a backwoods cabin tending a line of snares, walking on the first snow, seeing fresh moose tracks at daybreak — what more could a man or woman ask for?
I started rabbit catching at about 12 years old, by the side of Gander Lake, after school in early fall. It got dark too early later in the season.
When I moved back home to Spaniard’s Bay, I kept it up, putting out my snares in early October just around the time blueberry picking ended. At about 15, I got really serious about my rabbit catching, walking miles into the woods with long snare lines and tending them until the snows came.
A vivid memory often arises from far back in my mind. We were typical 15-year-old boys (by 1970 standards, at least) who took some degree of pleasure in doing things our parents would certainly not approve of. That included the puffing of tobacco, Players and Export A to be specific.
Three of us had walked the then gravel road from Tilton to Peter’s Path very early on a Saturday morning. It was the opening of rabbit season and Tony, Guy and I were going to set out a long line of snares, maybe all the way to Spider Pond.
We were at the edge of the woods long before daylight. We sat on a huge, round boulder under a moonless but starry sky. I pulled out a fresh pack of Export A, our illicit delight for the day, along with hot tea, and my mother’s dried caplin. If she only knew I was smoking cigarettes in the woods. She would have burned my long johns, boots and hunting sack.
Anyway, we lit up on the rock, in the total darkness before dawn, each of our smokes glowing blood red. I can’t remember what we talked about — school, growing up, price of blueberries, girls — the memory is lost in the mist of time. But the image of the three of us smoking on that rock is burnt into my brain.
The rock is still there; I see it on the way to my cabin, and sometimes it makes me smile. We were cooler than the Fonz.
Nowadays, I don’t do near as much rabbit snaring as I’d like. I’m planning to do a lot more when I retire from my day job in two years. Maybe I’ll spend November at the cabin, tending snares, like the boys from Gander Bay.
I still build a few rabbit gardens in winter, but lack of snow has been messing that up in recent years. I do shoot quite a few hares with my .22 lever action, at least enough for my pot.
A couple of years ago, I did make an effort to run a rabbit line of about 80 snares, tended it all November month with my buddy, Matt Brazil. I noticed that we were losing lots of our rabbits through snares breaking. That’s most disconcerting because those hares, with a wire noose tightened around their necks, will no doubt perish.
We were using six-strand picture cord, one of only two types now permitted for snaring rabbits on the island portion of our province. The other allowable snare wire is 22-gauge solid brass. They say that it is critical to use high-quality brass, and there is a big difference from brand to brand. Wildlife officials say that the best brands are Corfil and Trailmarker. I did not know this, and I will be field testing both brands this winter.
These regulations were established in 2008, the purpose being to stop accidental snaring of pine marten, a species that has fallen on very rough times. A pine marten will break this regulation wire and survive, 90 per cent of the time. At least that’s what it says in the guide.
It also says that it will retain rabbits 75 per cent of the time, which may be true if you do everything just right. I think Matt and I were losing close to half our rabbits. Maybe we would have fared better with the best-quality brass. The wire we were using may have been old stock. I just don’t know.
We set our snares the same as we always did and never before did either of us experience such a problem with breakage.
One issue looms predominately here: why bother with weaker snares in areas where there are no pine marten? Folks at wildlife respond by saying that there are no boundaries on an expanding population of these recovering critters. That’s true, but who has seen a pine martin on the Avalon Peninsula, for instance?
They say they also consider the issue of pets. Maybe, but absolutely no snares should be set where people let their pets play. And steel traps are permitted for fox, coyotes and whatever else. Probably it’s just logistically too complicated to manage different zones under specific regulations.
I do understand the pine marten issue and support it, but I’m not sure if we need to use lesser wire everywhere in the province. Is a 25 per cent breakage of rabbit snares acceptable, or even realistic with the prescribed wire?
What type and brand of wire are you using and is it functioning adequately? I’m hoping to learn more about this issue both from my own research and emails from readers. What are your thoughts on the subject? Let me know. I’ll be writing more on this in the coming weeks.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every
opportunity. He can be contacted at