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Wildlife getting caught up in thrown away face masks

Credit: RSPCA Cymru

With Keep Wales Tidy’s Autumn Clean Cymru underway, the RSPCA is urging members of the public to “snip the straps” from used disposable face masks.

The call comes as new figures are published highlighting the impact litter has had on animals since the start of lockdown – with RSPCA Cymru dealing with 35 incidents across the country since lockdown was first announced on 23 March*.

Dumped face masks have become a new hazard to wildlife since the pandemic started. The advice to snip the straps before masks are binned is given as new rules come into force in Wales this week (14 September) stating that people must wear face masks in shops and other indoor public spaces, unless they have particular health conditions or are children under the age of 12

A gull in Chelmsford in Essex was recently found with a face mask wrapped tightly around his legs. Despite the face mask causing swelling to his legs, the bird has now fully recovered – but RSPCA Cymru hopes their “snip the straps” message will stop similar incidents taking place in Wales, amid increased mask usage following the introduction of new mask-wearing rules by the Welsh Government.

The message comes as the RSPCA backs Keep Wales Tidy’s Autumn Clean Cymru, which kicked off last Friday (11 September), and runs until 27 September.

Since lockdown started on 23 March, the RSPCA has dealt with 35 incidents in Wales concerning animals caught in litter, including a swan with his head stuck in a discarded foam play square, and another swan rescued after getting a barbed fishing hook stuck in his neck.

Chris Sherwood, the RSPCA’s chief executive, said: “For many years the public have been aware of the message to cut up plastic six-pack rings before throwing them away to stop animals getting tangled in them, and now we are keen to get out the message that the same should be done for face masks too – as very sadly, animals are susceptible to getting tangled up in them.

“Now that face masks are increasingly the norm, and – as of today (14 September) – are compulsory in shops and indoor public spaces in Wales, our snip the straps message is more important than ever as thousands of these masks are being thrown away every day. We’re concerned discarded face masks could become a significant hazard, particularly to wild animals and birds.

“Our RSPCA officers have had to rescue animals from getting tangled in face masks and we expect incidents may go up as time goes on, so the best thing to do is to simply cut the elastic ear straps in half before throwing it away.”

Back in May, RSPCA officers Keith Hogben and Paula Milton raced to the aid of a swan with a fishing hook stuck in his neck, prompting a reminder about the dangers fishing litter poses to the nation’s wildlife.

Meanwhile, a Rhyl swan had an unwanted trip to soft play – after getting a discarded foam play square stuck around her neck in early July. Fortunately, RSPCA inspector Mike Pugh was able to safely remove the foam square and the swan was unharmed.

The majority of litter cases affecting animals are preventable if rubbish is disposed of properly and responsibly.

Animals looking for food can get trapped in tin cans and the sharp edges can cause injury. The RSPCA encourages people to clean and empty food containers before pinching them shut or cutting them in half before putting them in the recycling.

Elastic bands also pose a big risk to small animals and birds as they can wrap around their bodies or beaks and cause choking and other injuries. People are encouraged to reuse them where possible or cut them open before throwing them away.

Broken glass can cause serious injury and small animals can get trapped in jars and bottles so the RSPCA urges the public to clean and recycle glass as much as possible.

Plastic bags can suffocate animals or, if they eat them, can cause choking or can block their digestive system. The RSPCA urges the public to tie bags in knots before recycling. Plastic can holders can cause deep wounds to animals that get tangled in them – or can even cause choking –  so it’s advised to cut the loops before discarding.

The RSPCA’s top tips to protect wildlife from litter:

  • Recycle and reuse as much as possible – and put everything else in the bin;

  • Cut the loop handles of plastic carrier bags before recycling to prevent animals being tangled;

  • Cut plastic can holders and elastic bands so animals can’t get caught up;

  • Cut up balloons before putting them in the bin;

  • Cut up disposable gloves and snip the straps on face masks to prevent animals getting tangled;

  • Clean and empty containers after use and pinch cans shut or cut containers in half before recycling.