The WAWC’s second conference on Wednesday 27 March 2019 set out to answer some big questions about wild animal welfare. Increasingly, wild animals are subjected to control, management, conservation and other similar activities, and some species experience significant indirect, but still harmful, anthropogenic effects. The conference asked who – if anyone – is safeguarding the welfare of individual wild animals at these times.

Opening the conference, WAWC Chairman Dr Pete Goddard reminded delegates that the term “guardianship” was introduced by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in 2009 in its landmark report Farm Animal Welfare in Great Britain: Past, Present and Future. That report also emphasised the need for individual farm animals to have a life worth living and, preferably, a good life. The acceptance that animals are sentient beings, able to experience both positive and negative feelings that matter to them, gives further urgency to the need to evaluate their quality of life, and not just for farmed species.

The conference was arranged to examine the WAWC’s belief that the guardianship approach is equally applicable to wild animal species, and to ask whether we need a national wildlife strategy to ensure the welfare of wild animals is safeguarded?


Wild animal welfare, sentience and law: international perspectives

Professor Donald Broom explained that it was possible to evaluate both good and poor welfare experience in animals, based on the intensity and the duration of the experience.

He went on to discuss the sentience of different animals, from crows to fish and cephalopods. Sentience means having the capacity – the awareness and cognitive ability – necessary to have feelings. A sentient being has some ability:

- to evaluate the actions of others in relation to itself and third parties,

- to remember some of its own actions and their consequences,

- to assess risks and benefits and

- to have some degree of awareness.

An animal is either sentient or it is not, but sentient beings vary in complexity. The ability of species to learn and assess situations is far-reaching. For example, members of the crow family have an awareness of time and of competitors, which influences their caching behaviour. Crows have also been trained to respond to the number of dots on an object, and to the corresponding numerals. Having been trained to respond to Arabic numerals 1-8, they could translate dots into numbers and vice versa, and could also add dots and numbers.

Fish easily learn where and when to find food, and to avoid danger. Wrasse queue up to feed on parasites on bigger food and will select occasional visitors to feed on first, as these sources are ephemeral and likely to move away, unlike the “regulars”.

Cephalopods can modify previous learning, learn mazes, use flexible route-planning, have individual differences, show simultaneous different responses to individuals on the two sides of the body, use tools, and carry out behaviour that leads to deception. Examples were given of complex learning even in spiders, bees and ants.

Both pain and fear have behavioural and physiological components that are readily measured. It is currently accepted that all vertebrates, cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans are sentient. Despite this, no countries have laws protecting all sentient animals, although some do offer protection to captive individuals.

Pain and fear result in poor welfare in all sentient animals: the methods of killing whales, seals and badgers were discussed in detail and all were found to be unsustainable.

Assessing legal responsibility and liability for wild animal welfare

Dr Angus Nurse of the University of Middlesex, and a WAWC member, discussed the assumption of legal responsibility for wild animals from a criminological perspective. Starting from the main animal welfare Acts in the four UK administrations, he pointed out that wild animals would come within the remit of the Acts when they came under the control of man. A ‘responsible person’ under the Acts could be a person who has control or charge of an animal or who ‘accepts’ responsibility, for example through feeding etc. A wild animal taken in for rehabilitation becomes a ‘protected animal’ for the purposes of the Acts, as does a wild animal subject to confinement and human control. These assumptions bring in their wake a duty of care for the protected animal as well as a prohibition on causing unnecessary suffering.

There is no specific welfare legislation for wild animals, but the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits certain methods of killing or taking animals and provides for the taking of certain animals for treatment, care or rehabilitation. A person taking a protected species into care should show just cause for doing so, based on sound understanding of the animal’s biology.

Licences such as the general licences covering the trapping of wild birds contain welfare provisions for the decoy birds, such as the requirement to give food, water and shelter, and a suitable perch. Traps must be designed to avoid injuring trapped birds, and checked every 24 hours. Individuals in the targeted species must be killed humanely, and non-targets released.

Responsibility and liability for welfare of injured wild animals extends to anyone who takes an animal temporarily under control, and this may extend to a responsibility for humane despatch.

Influencing human behaviour to reduce wild animal welfare impacts

Dr Sandra Baker of WildCRU at the University of Oxford, and a WAWC member, illustrated the almost invariably severe effects on wild animal welfare of “pest control” techniques including live traps, lethal traps and anti-coagulant rodenticides.

The most common sources of negative impacts on wild animal welfare are: deliberate harm (eg badger baiting); direct, but unintended harm (such as bird strikes on building, or traffic collisions); indirect harm (eg habitat destruction through ‘poaching’ of river banks). Legislation is often insufficient h to mitigate the harms done to wild animals either by illegal cruelty or by permitted practices such as trapping.

Some of this is due to the largely unregulated design and use of live traps, other than snares and Larsen traps, as illustrated by the poor design and use of supposedly humane mole tube traps. The ineffective regulation of lethal spring traps, widely used for small / medium sized mammals such as stoats and weasels, was illustrated with photographs of squirrel, hare and stoat wrongly trapped. Break-back traps for rats, moles and mice, and glue traps, remain unregulated.

Controversial glue traps cause many trapped rodents to die long, slow deaths and experience fear, distress and physical suffering. Some animals tear their own skin, breaking bones or chewing through limbs in an effort to escape. Given that these are classed as live traps, the user is required to kill the trapped rodent(s) humanely, but Sandra questioned how many users would be capable of doing this correctly.

One of the problems with unregulated spring traps for rats and mice is that the impact momentum varies from one design to another, leading to significant differences in efficacy. Sandra has proposed a Voluntary Trap Approval scheme based on killing trials, with approval dependent on ≥ 80% of 12 tests causing irreversible unconsciousness within 5 minutes (which is the TIU approved under the AIHTS)

The killing of millions of rodents with anti-coagulant rodenticides (ACRs) every year is another major welfare concern. ACRs can cause rodents severe suffering and pain for several days as well as causing poisoning non-target animals. European approval of ACRs is only maintained because workable alternatives are limited. Traps are not viewed as alternatives because there has been no assessment of rat and mouse traps in EU and there is no consensus on which criteria are suitable for traps.

With the next EU renewal of ACRs due in 2024 the NoCheRo Working Group has been established to prepare the ground for non-chemical alternatives, including traps and prevent ACRs being re-approved in 2020. Traps are already available with a TIU of 20 seconds and manufacturers are researching automatic monitoring systems to make trapping more efficient and humane.

Sandra identified anomalies in the legislation governing spring traps and break-back traps, that have persisted since the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals report of 1951. That Committee had concluded that spring traps should be regulated, but that break-back traps for rats and mice involved no unnecessary suffering, particularly as the rat was “regarded as one of the greatest animal pests”. At the same, the Committee stated that it had no evidence that mole trapping caused unnecessary suffering, even though they had been told that the spring of the ordinary type of mole trap was too weak to kill instantaneously, and there was no need to make special recommendations regarding mole trapping.

Legislation following this report - Pests Act 1954 – required spring traps to have welfare approval, but the subsequent Small Ground Vermin Traps Order 1958 exempted break-back traps for rats and mice, and mole traps from testing.

60 years on, said Sandra, it is hard to think of a logical reason for this exemption. Approval is required for traps used with species of similar cognitive and emotional complexity, and for other (non-break-back) spring traps used with rats. Animal welfare consideration should not depend on the species concerned but even now, many thousands of rats, mice and moles are killed in unregulated, untested traps in the UK every year.

Welfare guardianship during conservation activities

Dr Chris Draper, Head of Animal Welfare and Captivity at the Born Free Foundation, and a WAWC member, contrasted the historic view that conservation and animal welfare are “conceptually distinct”, and should remain “politically separate” with modern recognition of the importance of individual wild animals. We have an increasing understanding of individual animals and their importance to the communities in which they live – the welfare and survival of individuals are often inextricably linked to the welfare and survival of others.

It is important to consider the impact of conservation activities on the welfare of individual animals and in this context Chris noted that the International Consensus Principles for Ethical Wildlife Control (Conservation Biology, 31: 753-760) to which he and fellow WAWC member Sandra Baker had contributed, provide essential guidance.

Chris pointed out that the categorisation of animals shapes and perpetuates our attitudes and relationships with them and affects our treatment of them.Animals with a designation such as ‘overabundant’, ‘nuisance’ or ‘pest’ are subjected to a wide range of human-disturbance – both unintended and deliberate, and often inhumane. Removing such labels reveals that our actions are a product of our attitudes towards wildlife and not an inherent quality of the animals themselves.

Welfare in conservation activities should be considered for its own sake, as well as that of the animals and indeed consideration of individual animal welfare can refine conservation research methods, improving outcomes and validity

Establishing functional ecosystems may be assisted by consideration of the welfare and behaviour of natural predators and prevention of their persecution. The conservation and welfare impacts of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and the role of individual animals within an ecosystem, should also be considered.

The ultimate conundrum was how to follow the principle of “First do no harm”. Is it better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good? The question of lethal control and overall reduction in harm is also complex. Non-lethal interventions may cause greater suffering than lethal and, in some circumstances, eradication may have a less harmful net effect than other forms of control.

Chris identified three targets of conservation intervention: “problem” species, species of conservation concern and “bystander” species, and asked where the guardianship of animal welfare should be prioritised.

UK marine mammal guardianship

Joe Perry of CEFAS and Sarah Dolman of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and a WAWC member, gave a joint presentation on the welfare of marine wildlife.

Joe noted the recent increase in public interest over the last two decades, and people’s care for the fragile oceans, which once were considered limitless. There are many key research gaps relating to human activities in the marine environment, as we begin to understand how our actions may interact with marine life.

For example, marine spaces are the busiest and noisiest that they have ever been, with vast economic gains to be made from the exploitation of the seas. The resultant adverse effects on marine mammals may inhibit their ability to act as key ecosystem components; whale movements are known to contribute to ocean mixing, and many have important roles in food webs

There is also a moral question mark over allowing marine animals be harmed and threatened by our industrial and commercial activities

The UK has some 40 resident and visitor species of marine mammal in the UK, including dolphins, whales, seals and porpoises, but public attention relating to their welfare has mainly considered the welfare of captive animals, such as performing dolphins and orcas.

Joe’s research for the WAWC had set out to assess the existing scientific literature relating to the welfare of wild marine mammals in the UK, focusing on direct impacts from human activity. The literature was examined for assessment of behaviour and physiology at different stages of being exposed to a pressure (before, during, after). Relevant pressures in the review included the construction of offshore wind farms, fishing, tourism, seismic surveys, shipping and acoustic deterrents.

Searching and sifting demonstrated that research effort of this type is currently very thinly spread across marine stressors and industries - the majority of stressor types only returned one study each, and the largest stressor type only returned eight studies.

Nonetheless, these stressors show no sign of reducing, with offshore renewables anticipated to increase to 15% of energy by 2020 (currently 9.6%), large scale deep sea mining and bioprospecting now under consideration, and the possibility that pressure to reduce carbon emissions could increase usage of maritime freight. Meanwhile, indirect pressures such as climate change and pollution may be making populations more vulnerable to the adverse effects of diminished welfare.

There are possible mitigations of the effects of acoustic deterrents, fisheries and shipping, but further research and development is required. Further consideration should be given to the effects of indirectly human induced pressures such as climate change, litter and pollution, stronger codes of practice, long term and cumulative exposure studies and the incorporation of welfare into risk assessments.

Sarah took up the issue of governance at different levels, pointing out the variety of authorities that have a role in this, and a lack of joined-up oversight. The focus on population level impacts meant a lack of consideration of the welfare of the individual.

Solutions could include new laws to bolster the Habitats Directive – transposed differently in different administrations within the UK – and a new UK Dolphin & Porpoise Conservation Strategy. Assessments at population level could be challenged and the “Five Domains” approach extended to cover marine mammal welfare. Meanwhile, Sarah acknowledged the role of NGOs and species champions as welfare guardians “on the ground”.

Current and future guardians of wildlife welfare in the UK

Alick Simmons, former deputy CVO for England, and a WAWC member, described some of the many ways in which human activity affects wild animal welfare. While it is neither practical nor desirable to influence the welfare of wild animals in all circumstances, the impact of anthropogenic activities on the welfare of wildlife is important for many reasons. These include the growing evidence of sentience and the patchy and inconsistent nature of legal protection. Some protection, such as that afforded to birds of prey or bats, is comprehensive and largely effective , some is almost non-existent – the wide range of permitted mole traps is an example of this.

Currently, guardianship of the welfare of wild animals lies in the hands of a few individuals and organisations. Decision making is poorly governed, unaccountable and opaque. While some bodies have sought to apply an ethical approach, there is scant evidence of wider engagement or a co-ordinated approach, with citizens and conservation NGO members, to all intents, excluded.

Alick considered the ethical framework provided by the International Consensus Principles for ethical wildlife control and gave examples of how each principle could be addressed in practice.

There are seven principles. The first is to consider of modification of human behaviour. For example, the use of ADDs to deter seals from fish farms is known to have adverse effects on cetaceans and could be replaced with tensioned nets around cages. The culling of wild boar could not be justified on the grounds of human nervousness on seeing these animals – rather, the public should be made aware of the low risk that they pose. In the longer term, increased tolerance of wildlife would lead to more successful co-existence.

The second principle requires control to be justified with evidence that substantial harm is being caused to people, property, livelihoods, ecosystems, and/or other animals. For example, the culling of mountain hares should be questioned as there is no compelling evidence base to suggest that this might increase red grouse densities.

The third principle requires there to be clear objectives for control, and an exit strategy. Here, the general licences for the taking and killing of wild birds were called into question as they require no practitioner registration, no reporting and no recording. And without an exit plan for such control, said Alick, “it’s just gamekeeping”.

The fourth principle is that animal welfare should be given priority, something that does not routinely occur. Inefficient and out of date traps continue to cause animal suffering, while the techniques used in the culling of barnacle geese on Islay, despite being described by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) as “best practice”, have involved wounding and unnecessary suffering prior to death.

The fifth principle concerns the social acceptability of wildlife control, which requires transparency and inclusivity. In this context, Alick pointed to the recent disclosure under FOI legislation of the 170,000 birds, eggs and nests destroyed over 5 years under Natural England (NE) specific licences. At present there is no requirement on NE to consult prior to issuing such licences and no requirement to publish justification, evidence base or outcome

The sixth principle requires systematic planning to be carried out, so that the desired outcome of the control can be maintained over the loge term. The lack of humaneness and specific targeting in trapping, such as the capture of birds and non-target mammals in spring traps or the capture of bats in glue traps, indicates that these methods are not best practice or sustainable.

The seventh principle is that decisions should be made on the basis of specific circumstances and not on the labels allotted to animals. Animals are not ‘vermin’, ‘pests’ or ‘problem species’ and using such labels gives rise to inconsistency. Different values are ascribed to pet rats, laboratory rats and wild rats, and to grey squirrels and red squirrels, and this affects attitudes and protections.

Alick considered the potential for guardianship among designers of the built environment. Buildings could incorporate protection against bird strikes, while bridges across roads and railways could avoid accidents and prevent animals becoming isolated. Finally, he noted the impact on welfare of conservation measures such as tagging or re-introductions. For the future, he proposed that:

- Ethical considerations combined with evidence offer better decision-making.

- Shining a light on proposed interventions ensures best practice rather than tradition.

- Decision-making must give greater voice to the citizen and not simply those with a traditional or financial interest.

These three principles, drawing on the International Consensus Principles and on the UK experience, should apply to everyone.

Group work

Following the presentations, delegates undertook moderated group work on four sets of questions. Their contributions were presented to the conference by Dr Liz Mullineaux who has also provided a written summary.

To round off the day, a panel and plenary discussion involving Professor Donald Broom, Dr Glen Cousquer of the University of Edinburgh, Bob Elliot, Director of OneKind (Chair), and Paula Sparks, chair of the UK Centre for Animal Law, focussed on how to crystallize the role of guardianship and who should take on this role.

The WAWC is very grateful to the Born Free Foundation, OneKind and the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare for their generous support of the conference.

Further coverage of the conference

Videos of the presentations will be posted on this site shortly.

Paula Sparks and Natalie Harney blog

Alick Simmons’ pre-conference blog on Mark Avery’s site

Charlie Moores – the Accidental Podcasterreport on conference and podcasts with Libby Anderson and Alick Simmons