How a new report on animal welfare is raising government awareness

A new RSPCA report on the treatment of animals draws attention to the Government's patchy record on the issue.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain is a nation of animal lovers, we are told, and the amount of legislation that we have around animal welfare would seem to back this up.

England was one of the first countries in the world to introduce animal welfare legislation, way back in 1822. Two years later, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established to enforce the new legislation. It was subsequently upgraded to a Royal Society (the RSPCA) in 1840.

There have been dozens of pieces of animal welfare legislation in the 170 years since then. One of the most recent and wide-ranging was the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which came into effect in April 2007 (see box).

But behind the well meaning legislation hides a more uncertain reality. The RSPCA received 1.2 million cruelty complaints in 2006, of which 122,000 resulted in full investigations – up from 105,000 in 2003. The number of animals used in research has been static for two years at about 2,500, having increased from around 2,000 in 2004. Around 63 per cent of eggs sold in the UK are still produced by so-called battery hens and over half of the UK's egg-laying hens live and die in battery cages.

It is against this mixed background that the RSPCA has produced its latest annual report into animal welfare in the UK.

Called The Welfare State: Measuring Animal Welfare in the UK 2006, it is the second year the 100-page report has been produced. The aim is to highlight understanding the reality of animal welfare in the UK and objectively measure our progress.

David Bowles, head of external affairs at the RSPCA, says that, despite over 180 years of animal welfare legislation, until last year there was no authoritative research into Britain's animal welfare situation. The minimal research and statistics available were patchy, sporadic and often incomplete.

"Historically, the Government has been good at collecting statistics on things like homelessness, the environment, or financial data, but it had this preconception that collecting data on animal welfare was very difficult, so it didn't bother. What the RSPCA wanted to show was that, yes there are challenges involved in collecting the data, but it can be done. And once you've done it, the benefits are enormous in terms of measuring how well we are performing," says Bowles.

The main drivers for getting the report produced were moves at an EU and national level to produce objective indicators on animal welfare, for as Bowles says, "there's little point in passing animal welfare legislation if you have no way of measuring its impact."

Similarly, for the RSPCA there was a recognition that it was very difficult to gauge the success of its own strategy and initiatives, in the absence of consistent data to measure results against.

The report gathers data from a number of areas: government sources at a national and local level, existing data from the RSPCA and other animal welfare organisations, and data specifically collected for the purposes of the report.

It splits the data into five distinct categories: generic indicators, farm animals, pets, animals in research and testing, and wild animals. Within each category are a series of different measures. Each is assigned a "traffic light" to indicate whether progress in the last 12 months has been positive (green), static (amber), or whether the situation has got worse (red).

Reassuringly, only two of the 35 traffic lights are showing red – the number of live animals transported from the UK for slaughtering and further fattening, and the number of live listed reptiles imported into the UK. However, by the same token, only six are green. A worrying number are either amber (16), meaning only negligible change or no change at all, or are grey, meaning there is insufficient data to measure progress between 2006 and 2007 (11).

Perhaps some of the most immediately recognisable statistics come from the generic indicators revealed in the report. These show an increase of almost 20 per cent in the number of people who agree that animal welfare is an important indicator of how civilised a society is. In 2006, just over half of the people questioned (53 per cent) agreed with the statement. By 2007, that figure had soared to 72 per cent.

Such a sharp increase in 12 months could perhaps be partly explained by the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act in April this year and the publicity surrounding the animal welfare issues it was designed to address.

Another key finding to which many people can relate, and which is discussed in more depth in our article on page four, looks at battery hens. It is also an issue which highlights the influence that supermarkets have over our buying habits and, as a result, animal welfare.

Over half of those questioned in the report (58 per cent) believe supermarkets should stop selling eggs from caged hens. This ties in with a previous poll, where 72 per cent of respondents said it was important to buy products that contain free-range or barn eggs.

With an EU Directive set to see battery cages phased out by 2012, and with a number of major supermarkets introducing their own restrictions on the sale of eggs from battery hens, this is one animal welfare issue that, although still amber, should start to look greener every year as 2012 approaches. Even here though, as our article explains, there is still a need for vigilance.

A big part of the solution, believes Bowles, lies in education; in making people more aware of the importance of animal welfare and how, often indirectly, they can help to improve it, through things like their buying behaviour and public pressure. That doesn't just mean things like buying ethically produced food from the supermarket, but also by making animal welfare a pervasive issue across all facets of corporate and personal behaviour, in the same way that environmental concerns increasingly are.

For the first time, this year's report questioned primary and secondary schools about formal animal welfare education in schools. Over 3,200 questionnaires were sent to schools across the country. Although the response rate was very low, at 4 per cent, of those that replied, 77 per cent said they provided at least one lesson on animal welfare.

It's a statistic that pleases Bowles: "We often hear that there's no room in the national curriculum for animal welfare, but our survey proves there is and that a large number of schools, especially at the primary level, are bringing animal welfare into the classroom.

"We don't expect them to necessarily devote whole lessons to it, but there are some obvious topics on the national curriculum that have a clear link with animal welfare issues, such as good citizenship. Informing people about animal welfare and getting it on the radar of society is crucial to winning this battle" he says.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006

The Animal Welfare Act 2006, which came into force in England in April 2007, is the most significant piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly a century.

The aim is to reduce animal suffering by enabling preventative action to be taken before suffering occurs, rather than the previous system which only enabled action to be taken after the event.

The Act aims to improve animal welfare generally by imposing a duty of care on those responsible for looking after animals to do all that is reasonable to ensure their welfare.

The duties of care are:
1. To provide a suitable environment (where it lives).
2. To provide a suitable diet (what it eats and drinks).
3. To ensure the animal is able to behave normally.
4. To house it either with or apart from other animals, (whatever is best for that particular animal).
5. To protect it from pain, suffering, injury and disease. (It is the first time that such requirements have been introduced for non-farmed animals)
The Act has also raised the age limit at which you can buy a pet, from 12 years old to 16 years, and you can only win a pet as a prize if you are at least 16 years old.

Penalties

The Act has updated and clarified the definition of offences such as causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, or organising an animal fight. It has introduced considerably stronger penalties for persistent offenders and has eliminated most of the loopholes of the previous system. Offenders can be banned from owning animals; fined up to £20,000; and sent to prison for a maximum of 51 weeks.

Comments