Conservatives – the party for animal welfare?

Tens of thousands of words will be written in the coming weeks about the Queen’s Speech (QS, which of course is not written by the Queen but by a team of government advisors) and its ramifications for animals. All animals from wild, farmed, companion, and captive. Trapped and hunted. Imported and exported. And no matter who you vote for there were undeniably some very good elements to it.

And that comes as something of a surprise given that for many of us the Conservatives are the party of fox hunting, of consumptive use of the countryside, of being in lock-step with shooting and farming interests, and of – let’s face it – a history of ignoring wildlife when they weren’t killing it. Yet – with an enormous majority and an electorate understandably concerned about Covid, the economy, and the fall out from Brexit as well as (or even, rather than) animals – the government have launched an expansive ‘Action Plan for Animal Welfare.



Amongst other things this Plan will, Defra says:

  • Recognise animal sentience in law and establish an expert committee to hold ministers accountable for animal welfare in policy making
  • Bring in legislation to ban primates, and potentially other wild animals, from being kept as pets
  • Renew an old commitment to ban the import of hunting trophies (from iconic or endangered species)
  • Plan to review raising minimum welfare and operational standards within zoos
  • Ban the landing of and trade in shark fins in the UK
  • Consider ways to limit the sale of foie gras
  • End the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter
  • Discourage unacceptable animal welfare practices overseas, such as elephant riding or big cat cub petting by prohibiting their advertising
  • Introduce a close season for the shooting of Brown Hares in England during their breeding season (and take additional action against hare coursing, which was made illegal by the Hunting Act)
  • launch a call for evidence on the use of snares in England
  • and ban the use of lead ammunition

On paper, that sounds impressive. Call us cynical, though, but pledges and to-do lists mean very little if nothing is actually ever implemented (in the same way that laws mean very little without properly resourced enforcement), and there is plenty of wriggle room to placate old interests.

Launching a call for evidence for use of snares (and it will come as a surprise to many people that millions of snares are in use across the UK) will undoubtedly involve Defra’s close chums at the shooting lobbyists BASC and the so-called Countryside Alliance who will claim they can’t ‘control’ the countryside without them. Efforts to ban lead shot (and lead is banned in everything else) have stalled for decades on the intransigence of the shooting industry. Closing the loophole that allows Hares to be killed all year round (essentially because farming interests claim they cause crop damage) is good but should have taken place years ago. On trophy hunting, as Born Free says, “the ban should cover the import and export of trophies from all hunted species [not just iconic and endangered ones] and, crucially, must not be watered down by exemptions based on spurious ‘conservation benefit’ claims.” Recognising wild animal sentience is one thing – actually turning that into meaningful protection and ensuring that all animals are no longer abused by the shooting, livestock farming and food production industries is another, as campaigners are all too well aware.

Some very important issues were skirted around entirely as well. What about closing the exemptions in the Hunting Act that have led to the scandal that is the smokescreen of so-called ‘trail hunting’? There was no mention of the slaughter of badgers for the dairy industry, a point raised by Badger Trust who said that “no reference is made to what the future may hold for badgers, as recent proposals still put the Government on track to kill another 140,000 badgers in coming years“. Undoubtedly intelligent, sentient beings, billions of fish are caught every year and simply dumped to suffocate in the holds of trawlers, what will be done about that wretched industry and its impacts on wildlife?


But if that sounds unduly negative, let’s state again – all of this has come from the Conservative Party and a government with a majority of 80 seats which also made (some might say, bewilderingly) huge gains in council elections this month. They may have been simply recognising that many voters (from all parties) see nature and wildlife as hugely important but they could just as easily have waved away our concerns and carried on as normal…

Change comes about from extensive pressure, and a huge amount of lobbying work has been going on behind the scenes (for years) to have achieved these considerations by Defra. Most of what was in the QS was included in an excellent policy paper called ‘No Animals Left Behind (Proposals for an Animal Welfare Strategy)’. It was created from input from more than fifty animal welfare charities and scores of individuals (not, we hasten to add, in case we’re accused of trying to big up our part, us – we’re just reporting on it).


So some serious prodding has been going on, but the results are on record (or at least the government’s intentions are on record) and – again – it’s a Conservative government that is behind all of this. It’s interesting to note that campaigners and colleagues like Dominic Dyer have long copped a great deal of flak for working with ministers like Zac Goldsmith (an unelected member of the House of Lords who is (putting it kindly) gaff-prone but clearly takes animal welfare seriously) but on a purely pragmatic level is it better to be on the inside or on the outside? The Conservatives may well be in power for decades (which is a painful thing to consider for anyone who believes in democracy and the ability of an opposition to hold government to account etc). Like it or not (and of course we don’t) that means they hold not just ‘the levers of power’ but ALL of the levers of power.

Yes, the old adage about lying down with dogs might come to mind, but ‘working with’ and giving due credit is not remotely the same as ‘slavishly supporting’, and it makes little sense not to recognise the good elements in Defra’s ‘Action Plan’. As long as we also point out its flaws, its deficiencies, and what it has sidestepped at the same time…


As a final thought, much of what passes for progress in 2021 will surely be looked back on in fifty years time with an exasperated ‘what the hell took you people so long?’. We know that we treat animals appallingly. Industries like shooting, livestock farming, fishing, and food production have avoided acknowledging the intelligence and capacity of animals to feel pain, fear, and emotional connections with their offspring, because without ignoring the bleeding obvious those industries face complete rethink or collapse. And mst of us are co-conspirators: we all know that animals are sentient. Anyone with a dog or a cat can see that for themselves every day, but that indistinguishable unit of ‘something’ in clingfilm and a plastic tray: entirely different of course.

Defra has been partly responsible for maintaining this pretence. They are a government department that has had an open-door policy for harmful industries for decades. Only yesterday they were welcoming back into their fold Lord (Richard) Benyon, who as an MP (according to They Work For You) voted against measures to prevent climate change, voted for culling badgers, and was embroiled in a decision to drop landmark legal proceedings against a grouse-shooting estate that was burning peatland in a conservation area. Most notably almost a decade ago he refused a request from other MPs that possession of carbofuran (the professional poisoner’s toxin of choice which has featured many times on this site) should be made a criminal offence.

So same-old, same-old at Defra or a genuine step-change in how we treat animals?

A mix of the two seems most likely. Some of the suggested measures should be easy enough to get through (the ‘primates as pets’ lobby can’t be very large and outside of a few restaurant owners who in their right mind would fight a ban on the import of shark fins or the sale of foie gras) but movement on snares (which shooting is almost addicted to), the badger cull, lead shot, and enforcing legislation on sentience will be far harder.

If we keep the pressure up who can tell, but right now – despite some good words in their Action Plan – the jury is surely still out…