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Sentient Beings: UK Government Pledges Animal Welfare Plan

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Jonny Rogers explains the UK’s new Action Plan for Animal Welfare, and what the legal recognition of animal sentience will mean for our livestock, wildlife and pets.

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Following the Queen’s Speech in May this year, the UK Government launched a landmark plan to improve the welfare and conservation of animals, both across the nation and abroad. This includes, among other commitments, the legal recognition of animals as sentient beings; that is, capable of self-awareness, pain and suffering.

Having now left the European Union, the Government claims that the UK is able to strengthen its own welfare standards by taking direct action to ban live animal exports and limit harmful practices. George Eustice, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has said that the pandemic has “put a spotlight on animal welfare”,

highlighting both the comfort and support provided by pets and the importance of a secure food supply chain founded on high-welfare farming.

“Legislation will also be brought forward to ensure the United Kingdom has, and promotes, the highest standards of animal welfare” – The Queen’s Speech, 11th May 2021

Action Plan for Animal Welfare

The Government has previously agreed to implement the Global Biodiversity Framework set to be negotiated at the Convention on Biological Diversity in October, which currently includes a commitment to protect at least 30% of global land and sea area by 2030. The UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan has promised to establish “a cleaner, greener country for us all” by creating new habitats for wildlife, planting more trees, tackling waste plastic and reducing carbon emissions.

In addition to these efforts to protect the environment and biodiversity, the UK’s new plan to improve animal welfare focuses on putting reforms in place across five key strands:

1. Sentience and Enforcement: A committee on animal sentience will report on decisions made by the government, holding politicians accountable for improving animal welfare in policy. Tougher penalties for animal cruelty will come into force, and the maximum prison sentence for the crime will be raised from six months to five years.

2. International Trade and Advocacy: Using the UK’s position as a global leader to advocate for animal welfare across the world, reforming trade negotiations by banning the sale of hunting trophies, ivory and shark fins. Although the production of foie gras by force feeding is already illegal in the UK, the Government will work towards banning its import or sale.

3. Farm Animals: Protecting and enhancing animal welfare for farm animals by ending the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening, and re-assessing the use of cages for hens and farrowing crates for pigs. The ‘Animal Health and Welfare Pathway’ plan includes improved financial support for livestock farmers in an attempt to improve the conditions of their facilities.

4. Pets and Sporting Animals: Recognising the importance of pets and sporting animals to the health and wellbeing of the population, and further tackling puppy smuggling and pet theft. Microchipping for cats will be made compulsory, and remote-controlled training e-collars will be banned.

5. Wild Animals: Ending the low-welfare practice of keeping primates as pets, and improving welfare standards in zoos. This also includes a commitment to protecting domestic biodiversity, such as for the UK’s small population of mountain hares.

What Happens Next?

The document concludes with the declaration that animal welfare will become a ‘key government priority’ going forwards, promising that Parliament will “engage with all key parties to develop and deliver our plans, including the public, welfare organisations and businesses”.

The response from animal welfare advocates has been largely positive, including support from the British and Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA, comments:

“These announcements will make a real and lasting difference to animals’ welfare, so we’re pleased the Government is committed to improving animals’ lives in the UK and abroad. We can no longer ignore the inextricable link that exists between the way we treat animals, our own health and that of the planet.”

Thankfully, we can already begin to see how the plan is positively impacting animal welfare in the country. At the beginning of July, it was announced that boiling lobsters alive would be banned in the UK. This decision follows years of pressure from animal rights groups to recognise the capacity for shellfish and cephalopods to experience pain, and the unnecessary suffering involved in certain culinary practices as a result.

If the Government are able to keep to and build upon their promises, the future will be brighter for many animals living in and entering this country. However, effective policy cannot be separated from our personal responsibility in both supporting sustainable systems and avoiding those that are harmful to animals, ourselves and the planet.


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