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Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) Conference 2019

Paula Sparks and Natalie Harney report on the Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) Conference 2019.

We had the recent privilege of attending the second conference hosted by WAWC, a body that provides independent advice about the welfare of free-living wild animals in the UK. We would suggest that what emerged from this thoroughly interesting and informative conference was a consensus that the current legislative regime protecting wild animals leaves much to be desired, that much work remains to be done to protect wildlife and that animal welfare needs to be a pivotal consideration. There was also much to applaud. It was heartening to hear about the research around wild animal welfare, and a consensus – at least from those at the conference – about the need for governments, citizens, scientists, educators, lawyers and NGOs to work together as guardians of wild animal welfare.

Opening the conference, Dr Pete Goddard, veterinarian and Chair of WAWC, introduced delegates to the concept of ‘guardianship’. The term was first introduced in the context of animal welfare by the then Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in a 2009 report entitled ‘Farm Animal Welfare in Great Britain: Past, Present and Future’. In the report, FAWC sees the role of guardianship as being that of the government. According to FAWC, guardianship should be independent, involve the implementation of policy, public surveillance and – importantly – the provision of information to the public to enable concerned citizens to make informed choices.  One of the overarching purposes of the conference was to explore whether wild animals also need independent guardians and who in society should perform that role.

Professor Donald Broom, Emeritus Professor of Animal Welfare at Cambridge University, went on to set the scene by keeping at the forefront of delegates’ minds the fact that humans are animals and warning against an anthropomorphic approach which places humans in a unique category that does not respect the interests of other species. He asked which animals, then, are to be regarded as of value to humans – those that are like us or are beautiful or clever or something else? We should also consider the corollary issue of what actions towards animals are right or wrong.

The guiding principle Professor Broom described is based upon our understanding of animal welfare viewed through the prism of scientific knowledge about animal sentience. He reminded us that not all humans are sentient (for example zygotes and some brain injured humans) and, in respect of non-human animals, there is more persuasive evidence of sentience in some categories of animal, such as cephalopods and decapod crustaceans, and less so in respect of other groups, such as insects. Broom’s presentation highlighted that the scientific evidence relating to sentience is fascinating; from research demonstrating that crows have the ability to add numbers up to eight, to hermit crabs avoiding noxious stimuli, such as coming into contact with electric shocks. As we understand more about these animals, we need to reflect upon our interactions that impact upon their welfare.

As Professor Broom pointed out, this knowledge ought to shape our approach to issues such as whaling and other activities that can negatively impact upon animal welfare, such as exposure to noise and under water explosions. Our knowledge about the welfare impact of humans can also shape our attitudes towards other activities, such as seal culling, which involves methods of killing often associated with poor welfare at the time of killing, particularly as seal cubs are often killed on floating ice flows, where it can be difficult to deliver an effective stun if clubbing is used or a clean shot if shooting from a boat. Professor Broom advocated a science-based approach to developing policy impacting upon animals, such as the badger cull. Citizens should also consider the impact of their activities in areas such as tourism and how that may impact upon wild animal welfare.

Dr Angus Nurse then went on to examine the potential of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (‘the Act’) to protect wild animals that fall under ‘control of man’ as a result of trapping. As a matter of generality, though, the legislative protection of wild animals is patchy. This was a view reinforced by Dr Sandra Baker, Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, who has researched the performance of unregulated spring traps for rats, mice and moles. She also highlighted the welfare problems associated with glue traps that are used as live capture devices for rats and mice. Widely available at retail establishments, the buying public are largely left uneducated about their use and welfare implications if animals are simply left to die or killed in ways other than a quick dispatch with a blow to the head. Indeed, a survey carried out by HSI UK in 2015 suggests a wide level of ignorance about how to deal with mice or rats caught on such traps, with some people suggesting that they would simply throw away the trap with the live animal stuck to it. Another concern from a welfare perspective is the use of anticoagulant rodenticides (ACRs), which cause severe pain and suffering; Dr Baker’s work on alternatives may prove pivotal in achieving an EU-wide ban.

Alick Simmons, veterinarian and naturalist, also pointed to legislative inadequacy around the protection of wild animals and, in particular, the use of traps and their regulation through the controversial General Licences issued by Natural England. Whilst there have been positive developments, such as controls on the use of pesticides and the prohibition on the use of gin traps, the legislation is generally ‘patchy’ and inconsistent. Whilst some species, such as birds of prey and bats, benefit from more comprehensive and largely effective protection, other species, such as moles, can be captured or killed in traps that are sold with very little instruction to the public about how they operate.

Simmons called for a radical re-think about how we protect wildlife, including taking ethical considerations into account during wildlife control which would include considering whether there are practical alternative to lethal interventions, whether there is scientific evidence available about the efficacy of the proposed measures, and whether there are any animal welfare implications. He also argued for greater transparency and citizen engagement in decision making, citing recent concerns raised about the lack thereof in some recent media reports (see here and here).

An interesting, but often neglected issue, is that of animal welfare in conservation science. This was an area explored by Dr Chris Draper, a zoologist and chartered biologist working for the Born Free Foundation. He highlighted animal welfare costs that can arise from conservation interventions, such as the hot iron branding of sea-lions for identification purposes. Whilst conservation is an enormous priority, he suggested that animal welfare impacts should be ranked equally highly and should be considered and, if necessary, impact upon how and whether studies are carried out. Similarly, the impact upon social groups of animals of moving them to a different locations or removing one of their group (such as a mother or elder member of the group) should be considered. Dr Draper suggested that consideration of the welfare of individual animals has generally been neglected in the conservation movement.

Dr Draper, like other speakers, also cautioned against the dangers of applying pejorative labels to wild animals, such as ‘over-abundant’, ‘pests’ and ‘non-native’, which can change how we perceive and treat animals and, as a result, the level of protection they are afforded.

Marine animal welfare is another area where there are significant concerns about the impact of human activity upon the welfare of some species. Sarah Dolman (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) and Joe Perry (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) drew attention to some of these, including the impacts of off-shore wind farms, deep sea mining, bio-prospecting, tourism, container shipping and fishing methods resulting in unintended ‘by-catch’ where non target species are killed (affecting an estimated 4,000 marine mammals per year around the UK coast alone). Industry funded research often focuses upon the effectiveness of measures, such as acoustic deterrent devices, but does not measure the impact upon marine animals or their habitats. With Green Energy targets resulting in more off-shore wind farms and potentially increased maritime trade resulting from reduced flight travel due to other environmental concerns, this issue may have even greater potential significance. Sarah Dolman called for new laws that contain explicit protections and have a greater degree of transparency, as well as improved governance.

In conclusion, the conference provided a space to reflect upon the massive loss of bio-diversity that has occurred over recent decades and to explore how we might not simply halt the decline, but also regenerate to replace some of what has been lost. Professor Broom drew attention to radical measures, such as those taken in Brazil where large landowners are required to set aside a certain number of hectares of their land for conservation purposes. Whilst governments may baulk about restricting individual liberty, the scale of biodiversity loss may present a compelling counter policy consideration that demands similar radical action. The Agriculture Bill may also present opportunities to support nature through the ‘public money for public goods’ principle which is part of the subsidy scheme designed to replace the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) when the UK leaves the EU. A Bill recognising animal sentience and imposing a duty to have regard to the welfare needs of sentient animals may also provide a much needed pillar of support. It is beyond doubt that legislative and policy change cannot be avoided if we are to adequately and properly protect the welfare of wild animals.

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