Chris Packham slates 'repugnant' fur farms as vets plead with Gove and MPs for post-Brexit ban on imports of real fur

‘They gnaw at one another – the stress caused by this repugnant, shocking trade is immeasurable’

Jane Dalton
Thursday 31 May 2018 12:32 BST
Fur Free Britain pleads for MPs to ban import of animal fur

Dozens of vets and animal-behaviour experts have called on environment secretary Michael Gove to ban the import of animal furs, after Britain leaves the European Union.

BBC Springwatch host Chris Packham called fur farms “entirely repugnant” as MPs prepare to debate on the issue next week.

“It’s shocking, just absolutely shocking,” he said of the battery cages in which an estimated 130 million animals worldwide are reared each year for their fur – mainly in countries such as Italy, Finland, Poland, China and Russia.

A Norwegian fox appears to have eye infections (Network for Animal Freedom)

He spoke out as the 50 vets and animal-behaviour professionals wrote to Mr Gove highlighting the “severe animal-welfare deficiencies inherent to the fur trade”.

It said that mink, foxes and raccoon dogs kept in cages on fur farms suffer with cannibalism, untreated wounds, deformities and infections.

Fur farming was banned in the UK in 2000, but since then it’s estimated Britain has imported animal fur worth more than £650m from foreign fur farms.

Next week's parliamentary debate over the multimillion pound industry is likely to be heated, with animal welfare supporters saying that leaving the EU is an opportunity to halt Britain’s role in the “cruel and outdated” trade.

Foxes farmed in the EU are usually killed by electrocution; mink by being gassed with CO2, according to fur industry chiefs.

Humane Society International UK (HSI UK), whose campaign also has the backing of tennis star Andy Murray and actors Alison Steadman and Dame Judi Dench, estimates that 2 million animals a year are being killed for fur imported into the country.

In a video supporting the campaign against imports, Packham said: “These farms are absolutely horrendous. The animals are cramped very close together – there is no enrichment in their life whatsoever.

An oversized fox in Finland, bred to be grotesquely obese (OikeuttaElaimille) (Oikeutta Elaimille)

“To make it economical, they are kept in vast numbers – it’s an industry and it’s entirely repugnant.”

The animals display repetitive behaviour caused by stress, the BBC star said, adding that they gnawed at one another or at themselves.

“The mental distress is immeasurable," he said.

Foxes’ lives are governed by their sense of smell and each one has a unique scent, he said, “so imagine being in a shed with thousands of other foxes – it would be extraordinarily distressing.”

Foxes in Quebec, Canada; their water bowls are out of reach (Jo-Anne McArthur) (Jo-Anne McArthur)

To see a wild mink would be a treat, Packham said. “Just so someone can have a bit of trimming for their collar or hood or a full coat – I mean, come on, get a grip. We’re meant to have evolved and have greater understanding and respect for all life,” he said. “Let’s do away with this rubbish, can we?”

He added: “They’re not going to be comfortable in conditions I’ve seen them kept in – way too small, dark, overcrowded, underfed. It’s shocking, just absolutely shocking. These animals are every bit as wild – they carry all the wild behaviour and needs of wild animals.”

Bodies representing fur traders say animals bred and reared in cages are domesticated and know no other conditions so the practice is not cruel.

But the experts behind the letter to Mr Gove, including renowned conservationist Dr Jane Goodall, point to the “worrying, even distressing evidence of persistently poor welfare conditions” from investigations at farms that export to the UK.

The letter, copied to all MPs on the environment and farming committee, says: “Wild animals on fur farms live their lives in wire-floored cages thousands of times smaller than their natural territories.

“They are denied their biological inheritance to exhibit natural behaviours and stimulations such as hunting, digging and swimming. And they can be kept in what is for them unnatural social groups. For example, naturally solitary mink are compelled to live in very close proximity to each other.

“These features of fur farms can inevitably lead to psychological stresses. Instances of stereotypical behaviour, a sign of compromised psychological wellbeing, have been well documented on fur farms, as have cannibalism, untreated wounds, foot deformities and eye infections.”

The letter’s authors say that welfare certification schemes require no more than what is legally required in each country.

White foxes in cages, bred for their fur in China (HSIUK) (HSI UK)

The Council of Europe has recommended housing systems allowing animals to fulfil their biological needs, such as swimming or digging, but none of these are possible to any meaningful extent on fur farms, the letter says.

Alick Simmons, Britain’s former deputy chief veterinary officer, who signed the letter, said fur farming caused animals sustained psychological damage. “This is too high a price to pay for clothing where there are perfectly acceptable alternatives, and so a UK fur import ban would be entirely consistent with our animal welfare values,” he said.

HSI UK, which heads the “#FurFreeBritain” campaign for an imports ban, backed by nearly half a million people, warned of “welfare washing” by fur trade chiefs who were “taking their PR spin to new levels of audacity”.

Mette Lykke Nielsen, head of Fur Europe, last month told MPs on the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that animals bred on fur farms were domesticated so being kept in cages 2ft 3in x 2ft 5in – just a little larger than the animal itself – was not cruel.

A mink on a Canadian fur farm where the cages have not been cleaned (Jo-Anne McArthur ) (Jo-Anne McArthur)

Fox cages were “enriched” with a bone and mink ones with a piece of plastic tubing, she said, insisting that such conditions would be cruel if the animals were wild.

Mink would not breed in the cages if their welfare was poor, she insisted.

Claire Bass, of HSI UK, said the claim “beggared belief”.

She said: “The life of an animal on a fur farm is one of monotonous deprivation, and it’s extremely common that the relentless boredom and lack of space triggers the repetitive pacing and spinning o indicative of mental disturbance.

“For the fur trade to shamelessly promote that miserable existence as welfare-friendly is taking their PR spin to new levels of audacity. We hope this letter from veterinary and animal-welfare experts will remind MPs to beware ‘welfare washing’ by the trade. It’s time for the UK to stop trading in this suffering.”

However, those lobbying for change could face a big battle.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee minister Lord Gardiner told the departmental hearing last month: “We think there should be an adherence to humane standards, whether it is in trapping or in fur farming … It is incumbent on the fur industry to be looking to raise standards so that those who wish to have real fur can also feel confident that the animals have been reared and farmed and indeed killed in a humane manner.”

And business minister Lord Henley said: “I have no desire to close things down. I am not in the business of banning things.”

Fur imports into UK by country and value, 2011-16

  • Italy: £82,546,714
  • France: £44,157,825
  • Poland: £26,165,120
  • China: £21,053,240 (+ Hong Kong £13,879,664)
  • Russia: £13,881,266
  • Germany: £12,542,949
  • United States: £11,387,613
  • Canada: £9,533,218
  • In 2016 alone £55.6m worth of fur was imported into the UK

Sources: HSIUK/FurEurope/Russian Fur Union/US Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies

Next week’s parliamentary debate was forced by a petition calling for an imports ban that attracted more than 100,000 signatures. In its response, the government said: “National bans are less effective than working at an international level on animal welfare standards.”

It said regulations ensured that any fur imported was from animals that had been treated and killed humanely.

Activists said rearing animals for fur humanely was impossible and the government should take a “symbolic” stand against the trade “in line with public beliefs”.

The EU bans the import and sale of seal, cat and dog fur but HSI UK says if Britain opted for a soft Brexit – remaining in the single market – a “public morality” clause in EU rules would allow for a UK ban on other animal furs.

Foxes kept in wire cages in Poland, the third-biggest exporter of fur to the UK (Open Cages)

Fur farming is banned in several other countries including Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands and is being phased out in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. India has banned imports of mink, fox and chinchilla fur skins.

HSI UK says that based on 2015 figures, China produces 75 million mink, fox and raccoon a year, and the EU produces 45.6 million mink, foxes, raccoon dogs and chinchilla a year.

High numbers of rabbits – thought to be hundreds of millions – are also killed for fur around the world.

As well as farmed fur animals, an estimated 5 million animals are caught in the wild in traps each year, including coyote, lynx, beaver and otter.

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