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Wild Mammal Protection

Cruelty and wild mammals

Domestic animals and captive wild animals have been protected from unnecessary suffering (the legal definition of cruelty) since the beginning of the last century, when the Protection of Animal Act 1911 was introduced. Yet wild animals in the wild were not included in this legislation.

Up to 1996, it was legal to cause any amount of suffering to a wild mammal for any reason, unless it was of a species specifically protected under other legislation, for example to curb its decline if endangered. Other laws, such as those covering deer, prohibit certain methods of catching and killing and lay down close seasons in order to protect the populations form being over-exploited. Other methods of killing any wild animal, such as the use of crossbows, were also made illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Yet there was no law preventing a sadistic act of torture to a fox cub or hedgehog purely for pleasure. This situation was continually cited in order to justify the introduction of anti hunting legislation.

In 1996, the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act was passed and for the first time gave limited protection to all wild mammals by criminalising certain actions, such as mutilating, impaling, burning, stoning or drowning. The Act, in seeking to clarify its intention and prevent mischievous cases being brought, also exempted any reasonable action undertaken in lawful hunting (and other lawful activities). The current law, therefore, grants only a degree of protection from cruelty to all wild mammals.

Why is a new wild mammals law needed?

Every law should start from a position of principle. This has not been the case with the Hunting Act, in which just one activity was targeted for its perceived cruelty to the prey animals, whilst ignoring other activities that are capable of causing greater degrees of suffering. In addition, a variety of other motives came into play during the numerous debates both inside and outside Parliament, which, while suiting those who wished to see ban on hunting dogs, ultimately confused the issue. The outcome is a law that is illogical, difficult to interpret, unprincipled, difficult to enforce and, worst of all, detrimental to animal welfare and if we are to properly address the issue of cruelty to wild mammals, legislation must avoid all of these problems.

The Wild Mammals (Protection) (Amendment) Bill, as proposed by Lord Donoughue and the Middle Way Group, would simplify the current law. Mirroring domestic animal protection, it would make the act of deliberately causing undue suffering to any wild mammal a criminal offence. Just as domestic animals can be killed and used for a variety of reasons, so wild mammals would still be killed and used. What should not be permitted in the course of any activity is the infliction of unnecessary suffering. Accusations of cruelty would be tested in a court of law, as in the case of domestic animals, but, crucially, on the basis of evidence, not opinion. Such a law would apply to all wild mammal in all circumstances.

The Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales (the Burns Report) stated in 2000, “In the absence of a ban, one possible legislative approach would be to remove the present exemptions for hunting in the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. This would be an important signal and give opponents of hunting a clearer opportunity to test their views about cruelty in the courts.”

Could such a law work?

Importantly, there is a part of the UK where just such a law is operating – Northern Ireland. The Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, grants protection not just to domestic and captive animals but to ALL animals, wild included (unlike UK mainland law). Since that time it has been open to anyone in Northern Ireland who feels that unnecessary suffering has been caused by anybody, including a hunt, to test their views in court, just as the Burns Report suggested. The Hunting Act 2004 does not cover Northern Ireland, where hunting continues, and no case of cruelty has ever been brought. Indeed, the recent calls from the League Against Cruel Sports to have the provisions of the Hunting Act extended to Northern Ireland amount to an important admission that they could not use the exiting law and produce evidence to prove hunting with dogs is cruel.


WMPA Bill:

  • has strong support in the House of Lords
  • was recommended by the Burns Report
  • has the support of the main land-use bodies and is likely to have the support of those it affects
  • has a principled basis in improving animal welfare, unlike the Hunting Act
  • is in line with the principle behind domestic animal law
  • has the benefit of simplicity
  • has a working example in the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972
  • avoids too much cost and bureaucracy
  • fulfils the recommendation made over 50 years ago by the report of the Committee into Cruelty to Wild Animals (the Scott Henderson Report)
  • builds upon the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996
  • avoids directly re-opening the hunting debate
  • most importantly, provides the means to test views on cruelty in a court of law (based on evidence, not opinion). The need for any future hunting legislation is thereby completely negated. Such a law would take the hunting issue off the political agenda for good.
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