The number of animals used in scientific research last year rose by 15 per cent on the previous year bringing the total to nearly 3.6 million - the greatest number of animals involved in laboratory experiments for almost 20 years.
Statistics released today by the Home Office showed that the number of experiments involving animals that were started in 2008 also rose by about 14 per cent to just under 3.7 million "procedures", an increase that closely matched the total number of animals used. This represents a 39 per cent increase in animals experiments since Labour came to power in 1997.
The number of animals used in experiments had begun to fall in the 1990s but in the past decade it has increased steadily each year largely due to the rise in the number of genetically modified mice used in biomedical research. Last year's increase in the number of animal experiments was the biggest for more than two decades.
Lord West, the Home Office minister responsible for regulating animal research, said that an overall increase in the amount of biomedical research carried out in Britain largely explains why there has been such a large rise in the number of animals used in experiments as well as the increase in procedures.
"Today's statistics show an increase in the number of procedures being undertaken, and the overall level of scientific procedures is determined by a number of factors, including the economic climate and global trends in scientific endeavour," Lord West said.
"As the regulator we ensure that a proper balance between animal welfare and scientific advancement is maintained, and that the regulatory system is effective, efficient and impartial," he said.
Mice, rats and other rodents accounted for the vast majority of the animals used in 2008 - some 77 per cent of the total. There was a 9 per cent increase in the use of mice compared to 2007, but much of the overall increase in the number of animals was due to an 85 per cent increase in the use of fish, which rose by 278,000.
"The increased use of mice was associated with fundamental biological research, applied studies for human medicine or dentistry and breeding. But this increase was partly accounted for by a change in the stage of development at which fish fry were counted," says the Home Office report Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals Great Britain 2008.
Other animal groups that also experienced significant increases in experimentation included amphibians, up 15,000 (a rise of 81 per cent), pigs, up 3,600 (114 per cent), sheep, up 3,100 (9 per cent), turkeys, up 1,500 (135 per cent) and ferrets, up 680 (154 per cent). The number of macaque monkeys used in research also rose by 1,050, an increase of 33 per cent on the previous year.
Animal rights groups condemned the increases on the grounds that they represent a betrayal of the avowed promise by the Government to reduce the amount of animal suffering in scientific research by a policy of replacing, reducing and refining animal experiments wherever possible.
"Such a shocking increase in animal experiments should be a wake-up call moment for policy makers that considerably more effort must be focused on the development of alternatives [to animals] in biomedical research," said Sebastian Farnaud, science director of the Dr Hadwen Trust charity.
"[This is] not simply to avoid animal suffering but crucially so that medical research can benefit from the advantages that non-animal approaches can bring," Dr Farnaud said.
Michelle Thew, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: "This shocking rise in the numbers of animals subjected to experiments is an outrage. This is the seventh year of consecutive rises in the number of animals used. There is clear public concern on this issue."
However, Simon Festing, executive director of Understanding Animal Research, said that the increases show that Britain is doing more and better research to find solutions to serious diseases. "This is a continuation of the trend which saw funding of biomedical research increase in real terms by over 50 per cent in the decade to 2006, while animal procedures increased by just 12.5 per cent over the same period," he said.
A spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceuticals Industry said that the increase in animal experiments was in large part down to the success of the scientific community in Britain. Due to it being recognised as among the best in the world, investment within academia and within industry is going up, he said.
"In 2006, spending on R&D was just under £4bn and by 2007 that figure had risen by 14.7 per cent to around £4.5bn. This is more than ever before. Consequently, there is a related rise in animal research, but the rate is not like-for-like - it is smaller due to all the work being carried out to reduce the need for animal research," he said.