Animal Aid

Submission by Animal Aid on DEFRA's Animal Welfare Bill

Posted 1 November 2004
Turkeys. Photo credit: Dave Clegg

While the draft Animal Welfare Bill contains a number of positive measures, there are several serious deficiencies. Not least of which, is that there will be no additional government funding or manpower to ensure monitoring and enforcement.

Most of the burden will fall upon already-stretched local authorities - while DEFRA acknowledges that the RSPCA will find its workload increased.

On the plus side are bans on the sale of pets to anyone under 16 years of age, the prohibition of giving pets as prizes and enhanced powers of entry. Most positive of all is the so called 'duty of care' provision, which allows the authorities to take action where an animal is likely to come to harm, rather than having to wait until actual harm occurs.

The negative aspects of the Bill are considerable. In addition to a failure to commit extra resources, the Bill will legalise one day fairs at which exotic animals, such as reptiles and wild birds, are put on sale by itinerant traders. Such fairs are currently illegal, although certain rogue councils permit them. The only protection afforded such animals under the proposed measures will be a Code of Practice modelled on the current, self-serving Guide drawn up by the traders themselves.

Currently, the rearing of pheasants for 'sport shooting' is governed only by a non-compulsory industry Code of Practice. The Bill intends that this thoroughly inadequate code will be the only 'protection' afforded the millions of pheasants who are bred intensively every year, principally so that they may be shot down for pleasure.

As well as the issues of animal fairs and pheasant rearing, we are making a series of recommendations relating to the welfare of thoroughbred performance horses.

Follow the links below to read on:

  • Production of pheasants for 'sport shooting'
  • Proposal to licence pet fairs
  • Welfare of horses used in racing

The case for a ban on the production of pheasants and other birds for 'sport shooting'

The introduction of a code, initially the industry's own, is not the way forward. Animal Aid, instead, urge the government to introduce a ban on the production of pheasants and other birds for 'sport shooting'. Such a ban already operates in the Netherlands.


The image that Britain's pheasant shooters try to project is one of tweedy Edwardian elegance; of responsible custodianship of the countryside. But rather than 'harvesting' a natural resource, the birds are mass produced inside hatcheries and rearing sheds. From the sheds, they are moved to large pens before being released to serve as feathered targets for shooters who are often charged a day-rate of more than £1,000. Every year in Britain, this is the fate of 20-40 million pheasants (no reliable figures exist). The pro-'country sports' newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, itself acknowledged (December 7, 2002) that the shooting of these birds is 'done largely or solely for pleasure'.

Because of the enfeeblement that results from being reared in sheds, many of the released pheasants die before they can be gunned down. They perish from exposure, starvation, disease, predation, or under the wheels of motor vehicles. And not all the birds who are shot are actually eaten. Some die from their wounds unretrieved. While, some of those who are retrieved - according to a Country Life magazine editorial (February 1, 2001) - are regarded as 'surplus' and buried in specially dug holes.

In an effort to eliminate aggression caused by the crowded conditions in the rearing sheds and release pens, gamekeepers fit the pheasants with various devices that limit their vision and prevent them pecking at their cage mates. These include masks, beak clips and plastic 'specs'. They also have the ends of their beaks burnt or sliced off.

The excesses of the pheasant industry go further still. Large numbers of wild birds and mammals are killed annually with snares, poison and body-crushing traps in 'predator control' programmes. Gamekeepers deliberately target foxes, stoats and weasels, because these animals are attracted to the unnaturally large number of semi-domesticated pheasants. But species ranging from badgers to cats - even protected birds of prey like owls and kestrels - are caught and killed.

Because of the confusion across government Departments about whether shooting is sport or agriculture, not even the meagre animal protection measures that are supposed to govern the production of poultry apply to the rearing of pheasants. The birds' main form of 'protection' is the voluntary industry welfare code. The new Animal Welfare Bill proposes that this self-serving Code is effectively adopted as a mandatory requirement.

Background to the Dutch ban

There is no hunting with horses and hounds in the Netherlands. Shooting game with a shotgun is called hunting.

In the 1980s, public surveys were commissioned by Dierenbescherming Nederland (The Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals) to gauge public opinion about the support for a ban on the release of game for hunting. There was also considerable concern in the Netherlands about the potential for damage to the environment by large releases of pheasants for hunting. More than half of the land area of the Netherlands is used for agriculture. Damage to crops and the agricultural environment are major issues. Dutch ideas about the natural environment run counter to how the British shooting industry strives to connect shooting with conservation.

Earlier Acts of about 10 years ago preventing the release of pheasants for hunting are now superceded by the Netherlands Flora and fauna Act of 2002. This forbids the breeding and release of pheasants so that they can be hunted. Between 1986 and 2002, it was permissible to breed and release pheasants to replace any destroyed by agricultural activity. (Such as the destruction of nests during mowing) Now, even that exception is disallowed.

It is not forbidden to breed pheasants or keep them as pets. But any pheasants reared for food must be humanely slaughtered and/or sold to a poulterer.

Commercial game shooting is forbidden.

Extermination of predators

The Dutch recognise that predation is a natural phenomenon, and do not allow unnatural releases of prey species to create an imbalance. Consequently, there is no scope to claim that the extermination of artificially engendered predators is contributing to conservation or biodiversity.

All netting, trapping and snaring is prohibited, except for the live-trapping of crows, using cages and reared decoys.

'Pheasants: feathered targets or food?'

Editorial from Country Life, February 1, 2001.

"...many large estates now shoot four or even five days a week from November to the end of January, killing as many as 2,000 birds a week. Shooting on such a large scale can be justified if there is a ready market for the birds bagged. This no longer exists. During this past season the price paid by game dealers for a brace of pheasants has fallen to between 60p and 80p a brace. In some areas, over-supply has led to shoots being forced to give away their bags, or, worse still, bury their surplus...There is one simple reason for the slump in demand for pheasants: over-supply. About 13 million pheasants were shot during this past season, which is probably twice as many as the market can absorb...Worryingly, on many commercial shoots, pheasants and partridges are regarded as feathered targets, not food. Many people who shoot even decline to take home their traditional brace of birds... Demand for big bags has led to considerable overstocking with tame, hand-reared birds... the ecological impact of releasing 20 or more birds per hectare - a common stocking figure on many commercial shooting estates - is serious. It not only reduces the breeding success of wild stock, but leads to crop damage, soil erosion round release pens, and a greatly increased risk of disease... Rearing and releasing game for shooting has already been outlawed in Holland, and there seems little doubt that coming years will see the threat of similar legislation in this country."

Animal Aid calls for a ban on the commercial breeding of pheasants for sport shooting.

Proposal to licence pet fairs

We consider this proposal to be retrograde and inconsistent with the Bill's objective to advance animal welfare in Britain.

In the past five years we have gathered abundant evidence at bird and reptile fairs which demonstrates that the makeshift set-ups, overly restrictive housing and excessive transport and handling associated with itinerant trading, are incompatible with high animal welfare standards.

Filmed evidence at the National Cage & Aviary Birds Exhibition in 2002 and 2003 showed birds routinely kept in tiny cages, unable to spread their wings, in direct contravention of the Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981. This event is the largest and most 'prestigious' in the bird dealers' calendar. Many smaller birds such as finches and budgerigars were kept in severely overcrowded cages that did not afford enough space for each bird to perch. Precariously positioned cages were frequently interfered with by members of the public and fell to the ground. These stressful conditions are compounded by the fact that parrots are neophobic - fearful of new situations. The constantly changing environment and replacement or removal of cage mates accelerates the suffering endured by parrots at pet markets.

Video documentation from more than a dozen reptile markets shows animals stacked in tiny plastic boxes and cardboard take-away containers with ventilation holes that are blocked by the box above. Little regard is given to the temperature, lighting and humidity control necessary for reptiles' complicated biological functions. At most reptile fairs the animals are freely available for public handling, greatly increasing their level of stress and suffering.

Although some bird and reptile dealers also run pet shops that are licensed and inspected, most do not and, instead, travel from one pet market to another. Little is known about the temporary accommodation used by these dealers to house animals between markets. At the very least, these premises should also be licensed.

The impact of this proposal on wild populations of birds and reptiles would also be devastating. According to the RSPB, the EU is the world's largest market for wild-caught parrots, with more than 10,000 birds imported into the UK last year. Ninety-nine species of parrots are currently listed as globally threatened, 45 of whom are specifically threatened by the pet trade. The majority of CITES listed bird species imported into the UK are still wild-caught. Similarly, capture from the wild is still the main source of imported reptiles into Britain. The Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow has reported an alarming 49% increase in reptiles imported, up to 100,000 in 2002. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature recently stated that: '...wildlife criminals see the UK as a soft touch'. The legalisation of pet fairs would only reinforce this view.

An increase in the number of exotic pets in Britain will also lead to an increased number of non-native species released into the wild. Much of the exotic pet trade relies on impulse buying and buyers' ignorance. When these pets become too troublesome or large, they are often released by their owners into the environment. Unintentional escapes also occur as these wild animals seek release from captivity. The ecological problems associated with alien species are well established. Among those which can be directly attributed to pet sources are: European pond terrapin (Emys orbicularis), red-eared terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans), American bullfrog (Rana catesbiana) and ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri). According to Dr Chris Butler of Oxford University, Britain's wild parrot population currently numbers 20,000 and is increasing by 30% annually. Sadly, but not surprisingly, they are now considered 'pests' by farmers concerned about commercial fruit crops. At a time when Britain is being criticised for its failure to meet targets under the EU Habitats Directive, a relaxation of pet fair legislation will do little to convince critics that this government is committed to preserving biodiversity.

Legalising pet fairs would also bring with it the prospect of more cruelty and neglect cases. The RSPCA report a shocking 200% increase in the number of exotic animal rescues in 2000 compared with 1999. Most of these cases involved ill-informed owners who were unaware that they were causing any suffering. Our investigations at bird and reptile fairs reveal that the average stallholder possesses neither relevant qualifications nor experience in bird or reptile husbandry. Customers are often given misleading and inaccurate advice about the animal's full-grown size, lifespan and complex physiological and behavioural needs. When the 6 inch iguana they purchased reaches 6 feet in length, they are unable to cope and either abandon the animal or dump him/her on an already overcrowded rescue centre.

Many animals purchased at pet fairs, sometimes costing hundreds or even thousands of pounds, become sick or die within a few days. Pet markets provide an ideal environment for the spread of disease between animals and from animals to people. Highly stressed animals suffer from reduced immune competence and increased incidents of common infections. A number of these infections have the potential to result in serious epidemics and can cross species boundaries. Psittacosis in birds and salmonella in reptiles are just two of the pathogens easily transferred to humans. In the US, it is estimated that up to 140,000 people annually contract salmonellosis from direct and indirect contact with reptiles. Zoonotic infections are of particular concern with pet fairs as they are usually held in public venues such as sports halls, community centres and schools. As these pathogens can persist in the environment for long periods, many more people will be put at risk when the building reverts to its usual functions.

The unrealistic enforcement burden that this proposal would put on local authorities would inevitably mean that many fairs would not be monitored and any licence conditions designed to prevent animal suffering would be unenforced. Many taxpayers would surely question the use of limited council funds to administer and licence these commercial events.

Legalising pet fairs would be a giant step backwards for animal welfare in Britain. Animal Aid calls for this proposal to be removed from the Animal Welfare Bill.

Welfare of horses used in the racing industry


Many people believe that betting on a horse is a harmless flutter. But around 300 horses are raced to death every year on British courses or whilst training - they are shot following falls, suffer fatal heart attacks, or sustain some other injury that makes them commercially unviable.

Those who continue racing are pushed to their limits. Serious racing-related illnesses such as bleeding lungs and gastric ulcers are now endemic. 82% of flat race horses older than three years of age suffer from exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH) - i.e. bleeding in the lungs. Gastric ulcers are present in no fewer than 93% of horses in training, in whom the condition gets progressively worse. When horses are retired, the condition improves.

Some 15,000 foals are bred for racing in Britain and Ireland every year, but only one third are deemed sufficiently strong and healthy actually to be entered into racing. Most of the others are discarded. They are killed for pet food, fed to hunting hounds, used for less testing equestrian events, or repeatedly changing hands in a downward spiral of neglect. A similar fate awaits the thousands who leave racing every year and who are not retained to serve as breeders. Only a small number enjoy a decent, properly financed retirement.

The above indicates why Animal Aid regards commercial horse racing as being intrinsically exploitative. Calling for a ban, however, would at this juncture be an empty gesture. We recognise that we must play our part in encouraging meaningful debate and help build public and political support for the view that supporting commercial horse racing is incompatible with a concern for animal welfare. In the meantime, we wish to submit for incorporation into the new Animal Welfare Bill, some practical recommendations to improve the welfare of performance horses.

Ban on whipping

The 'whip' is a narrow plastic rod that is used to beat racehorses. A new, cushioned whip has been mandated for National Hunt (jump) racing, but this requirement does not apply to All Weather or Flat racing. Furthermore, there is already evidence that jockeys using the new 'shock absorbing' whip are hitting harder and more often to compensate for the reduced 'purchase'.

Our report, 'A Hiding to Nothing' studied 161 races, involving 285 jockeys and 1500 horses. It is probably the most comprehensive survey of its kind ever conducted in Britain. It details the whip being used on young horses during their first ever race. Horses in a state of total exhaustion and out of contention were also beaten. The whip was used on the neck and shoulders, as well as the hind quarters. Horses were observed being whipped 20, even 30, times during a race.

A statistical analysis showed that whipping decreases the chances of a win. And our filmed evidence shows whipped animals become distracted, unbalanced and lose concentration. In response to our evidence, the Jockey Club (JC) has admitted that 'more races are lost rather than won through use of the whip'.

The JC allows use of the whip for 'safety and encouragement'. Safety is a valid concern, but our evidence demonstrates that whipping often causes rather than prevents accidents. The vast majority of whip use is self-evidently for 'encouragement'. Inflicting deliberate pain and stress on an animal while attempting to secure a better outcome in a 'sporting' event, must surely qualify as 'unnecessary suffering' - a criminal offence under both 1911 Act and the proposed legislation.

Animal Aid calls for an outright ban on the use of the whip. This would create a 'level playing field' and mean that all riders could race to the best of their abilities without resorting to beating the horses.

Rehabilation of retired racehorses

Thoroughbred horses have been selectively bred for racing. In retirement they have very particular psychological and physical needs.

The industry's retirement project - Rehabilitation of Racehorses (RoR) is just four years old and we understand it devotes something like £200,000-250,000 for horse 'rehabilitation' each year.

It costs about £4,000 merely to retrain a retired racehorse for a new career (The Independent, April 12, 2000). This means that £200,000 could retrain only 50 horses. According to research conducted by the British Horseracing Board itself, there are at least 350 ex-racehorses per annum in need of 'retraining'. We regard that total as conservative.

The Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre in Nateby reports (The Guardian, Feb 8, 2002) that they, alone, turn away 'two or three' horses every day during the winter months because the animals cannot be accommodated. We calculate that this adds up to around 300 horses annually - from just one centre that is part of the RoR scheme. Also missing from the BHB's calculations are all the horses who fall by the wayside at varying ages and who are simply not tracked.

The number of ex-racehorses disposed of each year and in need of care is clearly substantial. But even if we assume the figure to be 1,000, given that around £4,000 per horse is required for retraining, we see that £4 million is needed for that task alone. Our research indicates that another £1,000-plus per horse is needed by way of a contribution to feeding, stabling, veterinary bills, care of hooves, teeth and so on. We now reach a total of £5 million per annum.

Such an amount is a pittance in the context of an industry where the prize money for a Derby winner is more than £500,000, and where the horse racing-related income of the major bookmakers runs to hundreds of millions of pounds every year. These Big Three, nonetheless, are reported to have refused to give more than a token amount to the industry's retirement scheme. (Daily Telegraph, April 2000)

Animal Aid calls for the industry to be legally required to provide sufficient funds for the rehabilitation of all racehorses.

Publicly accessible database of thoroughbred horses and their fate

It is extremely difficult to track the identity, ownership and whereabouts of thoroughbred horses who:

  • Were bred to be raced but who failed to make the grade and thus dropped out of the system.
  • Have retired from racing.

Race horses, for instance, not infrequently arrive at sanctuaries with names that do not show up on any of the records. We are also concerned by reports of horses passed from owner to owner and suffering a downward spiral of neglect. The horse passport system seems to have done little to improve the situation.

Animal Aid calls for the development of the 'passport', on which is logged key identification details, injuries, veterinary treatments, races run and transfer-of-owner details.

Record-keeping should be open to public scrutiny and should continue after the horse leaves racing - or, indeed, be undertaken even if a young animal fails to 'make the grade'. The animal's ultimate fate should also be logged - whether slaughtered for pet or human food, used as a source of meat for the local hunt, or employed in a secondary career in point-to-point racing or at a commercial stables.

The British Horseracing Board and the Jockey Club (or their successor body) should have a duty to ensure such records are properly maintained, centrally located and be open to public inspection. DEFRA and/or local authorities should be assigned powers of enforcement with respect to offences of abandonment, neglect, cruelty and the failure to maintain proper records.

Please visit our campaign pages to find out more about these issues.

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