null Why talking sense about sentience is so important for animal welfare

Why talking sense about sentience is so important for animal welfare

A blog by Chris Sherwood, our Chief Executive.

As the Sentience Bill starts making its way through parliament, there has been a backlash from lobby groups and a deliberate move by some to position the proposed sentience bill as the preserve of 'woke' activists who want to tie up the Government in red tape.

Science shows us that crabs experience pain and distress

But animal sentience is not a niche issue - it's backed by a clear and growing body of science that shows us that animals, including the much-discussed crab and octopus, experience pain and distress. The planned Animal Sentience Committee is an advisory body which will feature a range of relevant expertise and perspectives to assess whether the Government pays due regard to animal sentience when making policy. This will better inform the Government to properly weigh the public benefit against any impact on animals.

Fears have been expressed that the committee will be able to block infrastructure projects and hold the Government to ransom but this is simply not the case. The committee will be appointed by ministers in the same way as all committees and its reports will be advisory; it will not have decision-making powers. The final say will lie with ministers, as has always been the case.

The Scottish Animal Welfare Commission has been in existence for a year, with a focus on protecting wild and companion animals and providing scientific and ethical advice to the Government. This has worked well, agreeing sensible and pragmatic solutions to policy issues such as beaver reintroduction and management of deer.

There has also been a suggestion that the Sentience Bill, for example, would spell the end of the crab fishing industry if decapod crustaceans (crabs and lobsters) are within its scope. This isn't true. When our Head of Animals in Science, Penny Hawkins, gave evidence to the Efra Committee on the subject, she explained that, in reality, crab fishing crews knew they had to take care of the animals and that just a few 'small changes' to the way they work could help them better meet the crabs' welfare needs.

Read more: Animals have feelings but why did it take so long to recognise this in UK law?

The legal recognition of sentience is an important opportunity

The legal recognition of sentience is an important opportunity to improve the policy-making process in this country. For example, under current planning laws, proposals for a new bypass which threatens the habitat of native wild animals may take into account any impacts on endangered species, but do not have to take into account any animals' welfare needs. 

Under the Sentience Bill, the new committee would review whether the relevant policies that play a part here give due regard and consideration to the welfare of animals that would be affected by these types of changes.

Giving due regard to animal welfare could mean, wherever possible, making allowances for animal welfare by siting the bypass away from wildlife habitats, undertaking work at times of the year when the animals are not there and avoiding breeding seasons, or dealing humanely with animals who lose their habitat. This is very different from preventing all new roads from being constructed and is an ethical and sensible approach to reviewing policy.

Indeed, many of these approaches are already applied and work well with respect to the environment - it is forbidden to destroy hedgerows during the bird breeding season or wilfully destroy habitats of protected species.

86% of the public support a law on animal sentience

Despite the way it has been presented in some of the media, sentience is not a radical idea - it is one backed by clear evidence that many animals experience pleasure, pain and distress. 86% of the public support a law on animal sentience. 

This week saw the disturbing State of the UK Climate report with its stark warning that we are already seeing the impact of climate change here and we must act now to prevent a devastating impact on our lives.

The environmental movement has gone from being a leftfield organisation to a pressing global issue. Governments are making important climate pledges and we all recognise the need to reduce plastic, recycling, switch to electric cars, eat less meat and do our bit to halt global warming.

There's a history of emerging ideas being dismissed as cranky or a threat to society as we know it but if the pandemic and the climate crisis has taught us anything it is not to ignore the evidence, however inconvenient or uncomfortable, in front of us.

Animals can feel pain, distress, happiness and fear

The science is there - animals can feel pain, distress, happiness and fear. This Government has a clear commitment to animal welfare and this bill is about drawing on the available science and expertise to improve public policy-making - that's what Governments do. Sentience is not a radical idea, it is a scientific fact and to ignore that risks squandering the chance to build the society that we all need for the future.

We have a 200-year history of advocating for animals - it's what we do and we're proud of the role we have played in changing animals' lives. The recognition of sentience and the protection of animals in law is fundamental to our mission.

Animals are not objects - find out more about the importance of recognising animal sentience.

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