Labour is wrong: wild and domestic animals are not the same



Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment minister, recently announced the party’s 50 point animal welfare plan. While many of these policies make sense and would indeed improve animal welfare, others showed signs of prejudice or ignorance.

One point covered wild animals, saying that a Labour government would remove the two-tier sentencing for animal cruelty so that all animals, whether domestic, under human control or wild, are protected by the same five-year maximum sentence for animal cruelty.

Legislation has always recognised that there is a duty on humans to treat animals under their control well, but wild animals are covered by alternative laws, because of the obvious different circumstances in which they live,

The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM), a body of veterinarians specialising in wild animal matters, responded to Labours’ plan with some concerns.

VAWM pointed out that while no one would argue it is justifiable to deliberately cause wild animals unnecessary suffering (the legal definition of cruelty), it must be recognised that wild animals live in a different state to that of domestic animals. What may well be an everyday experience for a wild animal could well be terrifying for a domestic animal.

In the wild there are pressures on wild animals, such as disease and population control that simply do not apply to domestic animals. In an environment that is called ‘wild’, yet is almost exclusively man-managed, there is a responsibility on man to ensure a proper balance is kept. The VAWM document “Life in the Wild” describes the detrimental consequences of ‘leaving things to nature’ and explains why certain actions that are unnecessary and possibly devastating to a domestic animal are essential and natural for wild animals.

Furthermore, as wild animals are not under human control (unless taken into captivity), issues such as treatment for disease will obviously take on a different form. In addition, management of populations, conservation and protection of farmers’ crops and livestock are issues that simply do not apply in the case of domestic animals. This is why laws against cruelty in the UK have always made a clear distinction between domestic and wild animals.

Obviously, there is no real difference between the torturing of a captive wild animal to that of torturing a domestic animal and both should be condemned as wanton cruelty, but in addressing the need for wildlife management, it must be recognised that activities totally divorced from the care and husbandry of domestic animals will be employed. These different methods may well cause confusion for those unfamiliar with these crucial dissimilarities and possibly lead to the unnecessary involvement of the police and legal system.

It is for these reasons that VAWM advises caution with regard to the wording of any proposed legislation that blurs the line between wild animals and domesticated animals.

Another policy included in Labour’s plan is to end the badger cull, relying instead on non-lethal methods. Once again, the veterinarians at VAWM took a more scientific view.

The problem with badgers and bovine TB is two fold:

  1. Since the badger was made a protected species in 1973 the population has been expanding out of control.
  2. A large proportion of badgers, up to 30% in some areas in the South West, Wales and West Midlands, are endemically infected with bovine TB with some excreting vast numbers of infectious tubercle bacilli into the agricultural environment.

This combination has led to a steep rise in the incidence of TB reactors in cattle, up 18-20% year on year since 1986 (see chart below) and spreading in parallel with the expanding badger population.

Badgers are the de facto reservoir of the disease, many of which, in the terminal stages, are excreting vast numbers of tubercle bacilli into the environment. Cattle, which are detected in the early stage of infection by the TB tuberculin test and slaughtered as reactors, do not as a result shed the organism. They are simply the sentinels of the disease in badgers. Under these circumstances the disease does not spread horizontally in cattle.

Unless and until the countrywide burden of infection in badgers is tackled the appalling level of infection in cattle shown above will persist. And badgers will continue to suffer the ravages of this insidious disease.

There is no alternative to culling, which when carried out properly and efficiently, has been shown to be entirely effective in controlling the disease.

The unproven, Badger BCG vaccine, which only has a Limited Marketing Authorisation, does not and will not have any beneficial effect on the disease in badgers. The 4 year, Badger Vaccine Deployment Project carried out by the APHA in Gloucestershire (2015) and other studies confirm this opinion.

Non-lethal interventions do not tackle the root of the problem namely the highly infectious badger and will not therefore reduce the incidence of disease in cattle. Nor do they address the collateral damage from badger overpopulation that is loss of vulnerable wildlife such as hedgehogs and ground nesting birds and damage to property and land such as grave yards, gardens and golf courses.

The badger, a large mammal with no natural predator, is a classic example of a population out of control through lack of management.

In VAWM’s response to the Godfray Review (2018) the Government is urged to properly address the problem of bovine TB and resume research into identifying humane fumigants coupled with identification of infected badger setts by molecular PCR testing so that a more efficient, humane and targeted strategy of culling badgers underground might be pursued. Such an approach that targeted only infected/diseased animals would clearly be more acceptable to the public in general and to the profession.

To end the cull, relying on what is assumed to be vaccination, and without stating a clear, proven strategy is highly irresponsible and furthermore not supported by the results emanating from those areas that have culled badgers over the past few years.

Jim Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance. Follow him on twitter @jimbarrington