11 January 2023

How a Goulburn snake catcher entices his captives

| John Thistleton
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Ben Shoard holding a snake

When WIRES volunteer Ben Shoard handles a big tiger snake in this fashion, a bandage on his waist is an essential safety measure. Leaving the snake alone is the safest of all options. Photo: Casey Townsend (senior snake trainer).

Ben Shoard has found the smell of water from his fish tank, and chicken, are useful for the snakes he keeps in his Goulburn garage for training handlers like himself.

The Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service volunteer has kept five snakes, ranging from browns to tigers and red-bellied blacks, the species likely to be found around Goulburn, for the past two months. Feeding them frozen mice or rats often requires creative thinking.

“They are wild snakes, they don’t often like their food already dead, so they may not actually strike it to eat it, which can be a bit of a challenge,” Ben said. The smell of fish tank water or chicken can entice a strike.

“If they don’t eat, we tend to release them a lot earlier than if we can get them eating,” Ben said. “I try to feed them at least once a week. Most of them this year have eaten quite well.”

He releases the snakes back into the wild after six or seven weeks.

As summer temperatures rise and with plenty of mice running around to attract snakes, volunteers such as Ben are frequently called on to catch and relocate snakes. The more trained catchers, the better the odds of reptiles being returned safely to the bush, where they contribute to biodiversity.

“A snake is liable to wipe out 300 to 400 mice in a season, so they can do quite a bit of good,” Ben said.

He has caught snakes throughout Goulburn, although fewer are found in the middle of the city because there are not as many places for them to hide.

“But because you have rivers and creeks running through Goulburn, you have that food and water source right there,” Ben said. “Quite a few (sightings) pop up along the river walks, which is absolutely no surprise at all because that’s the thing about the river walk, it’s set up so you can experience nature, and the thing about nature in Australia, it also has snakes.

“Either side of Goulburn, away from the river, there are more browns, but there are still tigers and red-bellies around and out towards Crookwell you start to get copperheads, and in the highlands as well. I haven’t had any copperhead in Goulburn.”

When called on, Ben rarely grabs a snake. He prefers enticing it into a dark bag on a loop at the end of a stick, which is less stressful and avoids disease spreading from either himself or his quarry.

“If I can get it into the bag without touching it, that’s ideal,” he said.

Red-bellied black snake

A red-bellied black snake, a species often found along the river walks through Goulburn. Photo: David Flannery.

He has caught between 50 and 60 snakes responding to calls to WIRES in the past five years. Goulburn’s colder months present fewer opportunities as snakes are not about as often. But when he is training, Ben handles 20 to 30 snakes a day.

He has just returned a large tiger snake to Lake Cowan near West Wyalong and showed it plenty of respect.

“They are more enthusiastic than the red-bellies but not as enthusiastic as the browns. With them we practise a touch-less and hook-less catch, just using the bag,” he said.

He has encountered his share of snakes in weird and hard-to-reach places. He said snakes in rock walls were next to impossible to catch.

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Ben tries to release snakes within their home range.

“If you release outside their home range, they won’t do well,” he said. ”Studies show the further away a snake is released from its area, the less likely it is to survive.”

Called out to Tarago once to catch a red-bellied black snake, he remembers seeing the family’s border collie running around, seemingly untroubled by the nearby snake.

“Then I found out from the owner about a month later that the dog had died from a snake bite. I think it did cop a bite from the snake before I got there,” he said.

Working in cybersecurity for the Australian Government, Ben’s interest in nature is broad. He said he loved all animals, without exception.

“I go for the ones that need a little more public relations,” he said. “ I do a lot with spiders on Facebook and displays at the Goulburn Show and have one coming up at the Canberra Show in 2023.”

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