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Guest blog – UK guardians of animal welfare by Alick Simmons

Alick Simmons is a veterinarian, naturalist and photographer.  After a period in private practice, he followed a 35-year career as a Government veterinarian, latterly as the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer. Alick’s lifelong passion is wildlife; he volunteers for the RSPB and NE in Somerset, is chair of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, a member of the Wild Animal Welfare Committee and a trustee of Dorset Wildlife Trust. A particular interest of his is the ethics of wildlife management and welfare. He is pictured above on the People’s Walk for Wildlfie inSeptember 2018 (Photo: Stuart Reeves).

‘The Wild Animal Welfare Committee holds its second conference in Edinburgh on 27 March. The theme of the conference is  ‘Who are the guardians of wild animal welfare?’  This article forms the basis of a presentation to be given at the conference to be followed by an open discussion.  The conference will be of interest those involved in the conservation and welfare of wild animals and is open to all.  Booking details.


For over a hundred years, the welfare of livestock, companion animals and research animals has been protected by legislation, codes of practice and associated efforts to ensure compliance.   While few would argue these measures are perfect, a duty of care is well-established.  Science has driven change in recent years but improvements in conditions have also been driven by ethical considerations; the general public’s dislike of caged chickens preceded the science that demonstrated the stress caused by the thwarting of normal behaviour. 

The welfare of wild animals, in contrast, has had little attention.  However, there is every reason to apply considerations of ethics and science to the welfare of wild animals.  Importantly, ethical considerations need to include the ‘Why’ as well as the ‘How’. 

Most factors affecting the welfare of wild animals such as predation and disease are outside of the direct control of humans.  These are not the subject of this article. However, human activity affects the welfare of wild animals, by acting on the individual or on whole populations, and includes the following activities:

  • causing death, injury, disease or starvation
  • removal from home range/habitat
  • social group disruption and disturbance
  • the consequences of hunting, shooting and wildlife management (including so-called ‘pest’ control)
  • wildlife trade and entertainment
  • wildlife research
  • wildlife rescue and rehabilitation (including releases and re-introductions)
  • agriculture
  • conservation
  • the consequences of the built environment e.g., roads, buildings, wind turbines, etc.

It is neither practical nor desirable to influence the welfare of wild animals in all circumstances. Free-living wild animals will suffer and die, and it is generally inappropriate to interfere with the natural course of events.  In parallel with conservationists’ efforts to ensure abundance and diversity, we need to consider how anthropogenic activities affect the welfare of wildlife.  There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. The increasing evidence of sentience in a growing number of species.
  2. The level of protection afforded free-living wild animals is patchy and inconsistent.  Many activities that affect wildlife, from sport shooting to so-called ‘pest’ and predator control, have carried on largely unquestioned for decades, either because the practices were unknown or unobserved, or simply because they have always been done that way.  Much practice and legislation which covers wildlife ‘management’ is based on tradition, is out of date and is not supported by available evidence. 
  3. There is little evidence that the most widely-used traps kill animals humanely even when used in accordance with best practice. Various types of spring trap were ‘approved’ historically with no recorded evidence that they cause instantaneous and irreversible loss of consciousness.  Unregulated traps (e.g. mole traps, breakback traps) are freely available: There is no evidence that they meet the 5 minutes to irreversible unconsciousness threshold currently used in UK for trap approval.    Few trap types require regular inspection.
  4. General Licences to kill certain species seem to be issued simply because it is traditional to shoot e.g. carrion crows Corvus corone.   How landowners are held to account for meeting the conditions of the licence is unclear.  
  5. The process of issuing Specific Licences to take or kill otherwise protected species is opaque; the rationale for their issue is not made available and individuals and organisations appear rarely to be held to account.
  6. Inconsistencies in the way in which wildlife is valued deserves closer scrutiny. For example, the brown rat Rattus norvegicus is a social and intelligent animal but the care given to the pet rat and in the highly regulated environment of animal-based research contrasts sharply  with their treatment in the wild. 
  7. The need to take account of the welfare of those ‘left behind’ when social groups are disrupted by the killing or taking of wildlife.  
  8. Welfare impacts from changes to the built environment. Novel developments may affect the environment and create new hazards for the wildlife living in or nearby, for example, innovative and larger buildings, more extensive transport links and changing land use patterns.
  9. Welfare impacts of wildlife research and conservation. The activities of scientists and conservation bodies have the potential to adversely affect welfare; wildlife rehabilitation, identification tagging, research, translocation and other conservation-related activities have consequences for the welfare of the individual, which are sometimes overlooked or unanticipated.

There has been some success in securing protection for wildlife.  Backed by science, the introduction of controls over pesticides and the prohibition of the use of gin traps, and of strychnine were major achievements. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 introduced a duty of care to animals under the control of humans and this is believed to apply to wild animals held captive e.g. held in a trap although this has not been strengthened by detailed requirements. 

Current Guardians

Who, then, are the current guardians of the welfare of wild animals?   Insofar as this is recognised and addressed, either in legal protection or practice, guardianship appears to be in the hands of a few individuals and organisations.   Decision making is poorly governed, unaccountable and opaque.  This sentiment applies equally to some regulators and conservation NGOs and although it is clear that some bodies have sought to apply an ethical approach there is scant evidence of wider engagement or a co-ordinated approach.   The citizenry (and conservation NGO members)  are, to all intents, excluded.  

The Case for an Ethical Framework

There is a strong case for better governance of human activities where these affect the welfare of wild animals.  The keepers of farm, companion, zoo, research and other captive animals in the UK are subject to animal welfare laws which, while having a basis in science, have also been shaped by ethical debate amongst parliamentarians and the general public. An approach which combines science and ethics to reduce harm to wild animals and prevent suffering caused by human activity is warranted. 

An ethical framework governing the full range of human intervention on wild animals would increase accountability.    A requirement for an evidence base would ensure that decisions to kill wild animals using traps, poisons and other methods of capture and killing would be open to challenge and scrutiny.   An example of such a framework is below.

In essence, any human activity that requires the systematic and sustained killing or other intervention which threatens wild animal welfare without an evidence base to support it would be deemed unethical.  This does not preclude all intervention.  It would be incumbent on the proponents of intervention to present rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the alternative interventions which take account of the social value of the species in question. The aim is to adopt the least intervention and avoid killing predators and other wildlife with few exemptions.

An ethical framework (e.g. Dubois et al. 2017) should be adopted by all those making decisions about wildlife including landowners, conservation organisations.   A modified approach which takes into account considerations of harm and benefit is likely to be helpful for introductions, research, ringing and tagging, etc.  A similar approach may be equally valuable when considering changes to the built environment.

Adopting an ethical framework with transparent governance would require considerable changes in attitudes and practice. Ensuring compliance may require independent oversight.  Attitudes in certain communities would need to change considerably, particularly in quarters not used to scrutiny of their activities.

A consistent approach for all species where killing is considered creates a challenge for us all and not simply the occupants of large tracts of land.  The killing of rodents, which is routinely practised in domestic households and business premises and which takes little account of welfare and environmental impact, would be subject to the same framework.  

Human intervention against wildlife, regardless of the rationale and the evidence base, should never be open-ended; an exit strategy is essential.  Otherwise, it is simply a form of game-keeping.

Such an approach may need to be supported by legislation to be effective.  Experience suggests that better protection is rarely achieved without legislation, but attitudes need to change in addition and a wide-ranging debate is required before change can be effected. Legislation and other controls might be avoided if conservation bodies and other NGOs, landowners and their representative bodies, etc opened decision making to greater scrutiny.   By way of example, all animal research establishments are obliged to convene an animal ethics committee which scrutinises all proposals.   An empowered committee for local or national decisions about wild animal welfare would be a major step forward particularly if this involved lay people and greater transparency.

Future Guardians

Who, then, are the future guardians of wild animal welfare?  Many of us value, support and strive for an abundant and diverse wildlife.  We may not own land but that should not exclude us from decision making.  Processes which involve an evidence base and cost-benefit analysis offer the opportunity to better decision making. Shining a light on proposed interventions would ensure the adoption of best practice rather than adherence to tradition.  Further, it provides the means to involve others with an interest in the outcome not simply those with a traditional or financial interest.  In essence, the future guardians can be whoever we choose them to be but, given the increasing interest and involvement of the general public in the environment, a sustainable solution must give greater voice to the citizen whether or not they have a financial interest in the outcome.    


Dubois, S. , Fenwick, N. , Ryan, E. A., Baker, L. , Baker, S. E., Beausoleil, N. J., Carter, S. , Cartwright, B. , Costa, F. , Draper, C. , Griffin, J. , Grogan, A. , Howald, G. , Jones, B. , Littin, K. E., Lombard, A. T., Mellor, D. J., Ramp, D. , Schuppli, C. A. and Fraser, D. (2017), International consensus principles for ethical wildlife control. Conservation Biology, 31: 753-760. doi:10.1111/cobi.12896


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