Animal rights investigators claim that some traps on land owned by the Queen’s cousin’s could cause distress and suffering.

Britain’s most famous royal photographer, the Queen’s cousin Lord Lichfield, is at the centre of a row over ‘barbaric and cruel’ animal snares found on his country estate.

Lichfield is among several wealthy landowners named in a report by an animal rights group attacking controversial snares used to protect pheasants from predators. The pheasants are reared in pens before they are released to be shot for sport, for lucrative fees.

The League Against Cruel Sports, after a year-long investigation, claims that primitive snares are being used widely across Britain and lead to the death of thousands of animals.

It claims wildlife caught in the traps can suffer intense pain as they spend hours attempting to release themselves. The wire of the trap can eventually sever their necks, killing them, the league claims. They also kill animals for which they are not intended such as badgers, foxes, rabbits and birds of prey.

Although snares are not illegal, the shooting industry has guidelines on their use, which are designed to minimise the suffering they cause.

The league alleges that many of the most prominent shooting estates are failing to adhere to the guidelines. Among them is Ranton Abbey, owned by Lichfield, who is president of the British Association for Conservation and Shooting (BACS), the sport’s governing body, which polices the guidelines. Yet the report claims that photographs show snares on his Staffordshire estate which appear to violate the rules.

The report also says it found evidence of similar breaches on the estate owned by Sir Edward Dashwood, the chairman of the Countryside Alliance’s Campaign for Shooting.

The guidelines aim to ensure that animals caught in a snare can be found quickly by a gamekeeper and killed humanely, normally with a shot to the head.

They state the traps must contain a simple device known as ‘a stop’. This prevents the snare wires cutting deep into the animal’s flesh as it struggles to escape, preventing a painful death. The traps should be fixed down, so that a snared animal cannot run off and suffer for hours before dying through exhaustion or starvation.

The league claims its investigators discovered snares on Lichfield’s estate that were ‘at best bad practice, at worst deliberately cruel’. They found what they claimed to be ‘amateurish’ homemade snares without any stop device and other traps which were left unanchored. At the time of their discovery, the snares were not set, and there is no suggestion that Lichfield knew they were there.

The report also claims that snares at Ranton Abbey were in an area used by badgers, and that they could pose a pose a threat to the active badger community living on the grounds. Under the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act, badgers are one of the most protected animals in Britain.

The league’s study says: ‘The fact that Ranton Abbey is owned by the BASC president makes a mockery of voluntary codes and self-regulation of the shooting industry,’

Such claims were rejected by the BASC on Lichfield’s behalf. A spokesman said: ‘This group of animal rights extremists have been crawling through the undergrowth in search of a scandal.

‘There is no credible evidence that any guidelines have been broken… Lord Lichfield snares for only two weeks a year and only for foxes. All his snares have stops on them.’

The investigators also say they photographed examples of what they claim are ‘cruel snares’ found on the Braden ham estate in Buckinghamshire owned by Dashwood, who is chairman of the Countryside Alliance Campaign for Shooting and one of the country’s leading supporters of pheasant shooting. The league claims it found snares on his land that appeared to violate the industry’s guidelines.

The animal rights group is calling for the manufacture and use of such snares to be banned outright.

Again the league’s claims have been rejected by the Countryside Alliance on behalf of Dashwood. It said snares were a legitimate form of pest control. A spokesman accused the league of ‘mischief making’ and selectively editing evidence to back its attempt to outlaw shooting.

Although snares are currently legal, the Wildlife and Countryside Act states that if a gamekeeper does not inspect the traps at least once a day he could be ‘guilty of an offence’. There is no suggestion that Lichfield or Dashwood has acted illegally.

This is not the first time Dashwood’s estate has been at the centre of controversy over animal cruelty allegations. On 21 April this year, two employees of Bradenham were found guilty of illegally killing a buzzard by battering it to death after trapping the bird in a cage.

The league investigation, which was carried out in 2004, involved visits to dozens of shooting estates across the country. The investigators claim to have discovered several instances where the guidelines appear to have been flouted.

Douglas Batchelor, the league’s chief executive, said: ‘The setting of these snares is absolutely disgraceful. It is … shameful that these snares are still legal.

‘This report is a first step in exposing the overall wanton cruelty of the shooting industry. We have often heard shooting lobby groups trumpet their support for conservation. This evidence undermines that claim and suggests that their idea of conservation is far removed from that of most right-thinking people.’

It emerged last week that shooting estates are set to receive more taxpayers’ money under new rules governing European subsidies.

English landowners who plant game cover – crops which give shelter and food to game birds over the winter – will be able to claim up to £70 an acre. A large country estate which claimed on 50 acres of game crops could earn as much as £3,500.