Sentience, trophies and a government muddle over animals

The government in England wants to bring in laws making it illegal to cause distress to various animals in a range of different circumstances. These are all covered by existing animal welfare laws, especially the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Nothing daunted, a new, glossy, embargoed brochure from DEFRA called Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare attempts to make sense of basing rules for animals on a desire to respect their ‘sentience’.

Practically speaking, these rules will start by addressing soft political targets such as puppy smuggling and live exports of animals. It will likely include a ban on the import of shark fins. It scoops up the trade in ivory along the way and, laws will become more extreme the further down this path DEFRA goes. For example,  ending hunting tourism by banning trophy imports.

The two men that prime minister Boris Johnson has charged with these tasks are DEFRA secretary George Eustice MP, once a farmer from Cornwall before his election to parliament in 2010, and Eustice’s opposite number in the House of Lords, Zac Goldsmith, elevated to the peerage after being one of the few Tory candidates to lose a safe Conservative seat during Johnson’s landslide election win in 2019.

Government plans for animal sentience

While Eustice is considered an able plodder, and will drive forward whatever legislation he is told to drive, Goldsmith is an ideologist, steeped in animal rights extremism, who wants to see bans on the utility of all animals.

According to Neil Parish MP, chairman of the EFRA committee, which holds DEFRA to account, the first legislation will split into a ‘kept animals bill’ for farm animals, and an ‘animals abroad bill’ which will deal with trophy hunting.

Eustice is likely to take on the ‘kept animals bill’ and Goldsmith the ‘animals abroad bill’. Both bills will have the new buzzword, ‘sentience’, at their hearts.

Parish is more circumspect. “We need to promote good animal welfare,” he says, “but we must be careful we don’t stray into animal rights.”

The history of animal sentience goes back, says Eustice, to the 1822 Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act (brought in, incidentally, by keen foxhunter Richard Martin MP).

The recent history of animal welfare starts with the EU’s rules on the subject. When the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009 it amended the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and introduced the recognition that animals are sentient beings. Article 13 of Title II states that: “In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the EU countries relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”

This statement, which goes to local governments as the basis for national laws, is vague enough to provide them with a front door, a back door and even a trapdoor, so no need for them to change animal management practices for either livestock or wildlife if they don’t want to.

The European Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes goes further and promotes ‘five freedoms’ for livestock:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

Take these rules literally, and the last one, fear and distress, is going to cause problems for anyone who bumps into animals every day – and that means everyone. If you use buildings or transport, if you use heating or air conditioning, if you eat food of any kind, you have a ‘utility’ relationship with animals.

Like many EU and EC rules, the rules are more to be admired for their intention than their real legal teeth. And when it comes to sentience, they only apply to livestock. Neither the EU/EC nor the government in England want to change the rules for wildlife.

Neil Parish says: “I have got mixed views over the ‘sentience’ bill. I think the government would have been much wiser just to have incorporated the European law, because it was written in a way where it could be slightly ambiguous (I will accept) but it was practical.”

Despite his document naming ivory, trophy hunting and sharks, Eustice maintains his new laws will not apply to wildlife either. He said in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This will be much more applicable when it comes to the field of kept animals – farm animals, for instance, pets – animal legislation of that sort rather than environmental legislation.”

BASC reckons the new animal sentience laws the government is bringing in will go no further than the existing 2006 Animal Welfare Act. However, BASC acknowledges that Eustice could use a new bill to introduce a close season for brown hares in England, which it opposes.

Eustice dodged a question on BBC Radio 4 Today about future bans on hunting and fishing. He says he will be bringing in new laws on animal sentience and a new committee on animal sentience. He ruled out an animal welfare commission, as in Scotland, that the RSPCA wants.

To understand the English government thinking on wildlife and livestock is to understand the current culture in Whitehall and Westminster. The government and the media remain small-B ‘blairite’, in that everything they say or do has to pass the Islington dinner party test. You can tell guests at an Islington dinner party that you go trophy hunting and they will hate you. You can tell them that baby kittens are pretty and they will love you. The sub-graduate level of debate at the BBC and in government doesn’t look further than that.

Livestock is more complicated than an Islington dinner party has the capacity to understand. Wildlife is extra complicated.

It is worth pointing out that, historically, being a DEFRA minister and trying to drive through legislation is a fast way to ruin your career. In the 20 years since DEFRA replaced the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries & Food, which so spectacularly and tragically failed over its handling of the foot & mouth crisis, there have been 10 ministers, lasting an average two years each. There have been four in the last five years:

  • North London barrister Theresa Villers was sacked in the 2020 reshuffle after six months in the job
  • Andrea Leadsom, remembered for suppressing a report about diesel pollution, lost the job in 2017 after just 10 months
  • The longest-serving DEFRA secretary in recent times is Michael Gove, two years and one month, whose time there included proposing an animal sentience bill but dropping it once he found out what animal sentience was, and appointing vigilante rewilder Ben Goldsmith, brother of Zac, to a DEFRA position even though Ben had donated money to Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency.

Most politicians are scared of the environment brief because it includes so many things they don’t understand. Eustice’s failure to acknowledge that wild deer have the same levels of sentience as farmed cattle shows what a muddle he is in over this issue.

While Eustice wrangles animal sentience, Goldsmith is flexing his animal rights muscles and plans to weigh in with a ban on trophy hunting. His political masters are watering down those plans, if The Times newspaper is to be believed, with trophy imports allowed from hunts where there is a conservation benefit.

The Times article on the watering-down of Zac Goldsmith's plans

The proposals in the government’s leaked action plan go further. They are to ban only ‘the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals abroad’. BASC points out that the meaning of ‘endangered’ has yet to be defined.

BASC says that ‘a ban on the export of hunting trophies is off the agenda’ and adds that, ‘Such a ban would have had a detrimental impact on the management of large mammals in the UK, including deer’.

However, the embargoed document makes it clear that the government is, albeit in a muddled way, still considering banning the export of trophies. The legislation aims to ‘ensure UK imports and exports of hunting trophies are not threatening the conservation status of species abroad’ – which makes no sense. How does exporting antlers from Scotland to a grateful German client who has paid well for the privilege of stalking in Scotland – money that has gone into local conservation – ‘threaten the conservation status of species abroad’?

According to DEFRA’s embargoed document, the UK government plans to ban dealing in elephant ivory with its Ivory Act and, on sentience, plans to ‘consult on extending the Ivory Act to other species later this year’.

Neil Parish promises he won’t let either Eustice or Goldsmith ride roughshod over existing, viable animal management practices, either livestock or wildlife. He says: “I wish the government well on this. I will be looking at it very, very closely.”

So the message to fieldsports supporters is ‘look out’. The government’s ‘Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare’ may not contain more than simpering platitudes but it will inspire zeal among antis who want to bring in future laws. All they have to do, apparently, is get the support of Carrie Symonds…

Thanks to SCI LHAS for supporting this article.

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