Will the Government’s ‘gold standard’ of welfare extend to wild animals?

Will the Government grasp the opportunity to do the right thing and affirm what we all know to be true – that wild animals matter just as much as pets and farm animals?

Wild animals – the foxes, hares, deer and more we all strive so hard to defend - are crying out for the protection they deserve. As it stands, the law all-too-often fails to fully protect them and properly punish their persecution – for example, there is no custodial sentence available for illegal hunting under the Hunting Act.

The Government has the means to act on this, in the form of its draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill, and the support to do so, by way of recommendations made by the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in its report on the Bill.

Unfortunately, in its response to the report published yesterday, the Government has not given the assurance that it will do so. This is despite the nevertheless positive confirmation that it remains committed to delivering both the sentencing and sentience measures of the draft Bill as soon as possible.

Rewinding back to December 2017, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a draft Bill designed to increase the maximum prison sentence for certain animal cruelty offences to five years, as well as requiring the Government to have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating and implementing policy.

It followed an energetic campaign by the League and other animal welfare advocates, calling out the failure of the existing 6-month maximum sentences to give due weight to the suffering endured by animals affected by heinous crimes like dog fighting, and the uproar sparked by the Government’s refusal to use the EU Withdrawal Bill to enshrine the principle of animal sentience into UK law.

When the plans were published, we said that they would be a welcome and huge step forward for animals – and they truly will be. However, for the Government to really live up to its ambition of cementing the UK’s position as a global leader on animal welfare and to reflect our status as a nation of animal lovers, a further step is required. It’s a relatively small one, but would make all the difference for so many animals.

Responding to the proposals, the EFRA Committee argued that to create a true ‘gold standard’ in animal welfare, animal cruelty sentences should be increased ‘across the board’, not just for animals under human control. This recognised the League’s contribution to its inquiry into the matter, that wild animals should be protected from cruelty just as much as domestic animals.

It is common sense after all – what does a fox hunted to exhaustion and literally ripped to pieces know of the distinctions we draw between wild and domestic animals? They suffer just the same. The current inequity is highlighted by the recent conviction of a former huntsman of the Fitzwilliam Hunt. While very welcome, it’s a shocking reminder that such cruelty is currently only met with a fine – a mere slap on the wrist when compared to the suffering of a fox chased and killed by a pack of dogs.

Yet the Government seems to have ignored this important proposal – the implication being that tougher sentences will remain limited to crimes against animals under human control, which would be a sadly missed opportunity and out of step with public opinion.

Greater clarity is also needed on the timing and detail of this and other aspects of the proposals. Clause 1 of the draft Bill, which is designed to recognise the sentience of animals and require Government to take it into account in its policy-making, is as important as tougher sentences. It will go a long way to ensuring the welfare of animals cannot be simply ignored. The signs are positive here, with the indications being that this will go further than current EU law by also including wild animals within its scope.

While acknowledging concerns raised by the EFRA Committee over the wording of the animal sentience provision and a perceived lack of clarity (such as over the definition of animals and how Ministers will be held accountable), the Government has provided little detail on how these will be addressed, and how delays in both aspects of the draft Bill will be avoided. The issues raised by the Committee do require careful exploration, but with time pressing on since the draft Bill was published in December 2017, more detail as to when and how both aspects of the draft Bill will be taken forward sooner rather than later is needed.

Not least to provide the guarantee that wild animals will indeed be protected as sentient beings, and to confirm whether this recognition will be mirrored by the extension of tougher sentences to those abusing wild animals, but also to ensure that the individual animals that are relying on us to protect them don’t have to wait too long for the protection they deserve.

The Government is yet to publish the outcome of its own consultation on the draft Bill – here’s hoping that it will come soon and set a clear path to the swift implantation of the measures sorely needed to protect both domestic and wild animals.

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