home  vision   blog   projects   resources    get involved   contact
Animal Welfare Work

Animal welfare is of huge concern in the western world, but it is important to keep it in perspective. Although the welfare of individual animals is on our priority list, it is at the bottom.

Our welfare priorities are these:
  1. Planet Earth and sustainable global systems.
  2. Shared regional resources, such as water, and fisheries.
  3. Habitats for full biodiversity for at least minimal viable populations of all species.
  4. Single species management programmes.
  5. Individual animal welfare.
Mankind is failing abysmally in the first two categories, and for many of us, our life efforts have been devoted mainly to the last three categories. Many of the issues that are being debated at the moment arise because people are taking these priorities in the wrong order. For example, the deliberate release of farmed mink in UK, done for #5 individual animal welfare, has had a devastating effect on #3 and #4.
It is fundamental that we consider these priorities. Take them out of order and the result at best is inconsistency, at worst, hypocrisy and major setbacks to our planet. For example, here in UK we may cry crocodile tears for an iconic species such as the badger, while happy to sanction all-out war on brown rats, regardless of any welfare consequences.

Predation and aggression.
In social groups there are three types of behaviour that could loosely be described as ‘aggressive’. One is internal to the group and is to do with maintaining dominance hierarchies and enforcing the group’s moral values. Another is external to the group and is to do with fighting for territory or resources. The third is predation.

Predation is not aggression. Predation is when one trophic level feeds on another. When a deer browses on a bush, we do not normally think of that as predation because the bush is insentient and immobile. This does not mean that the bush cannot react. Its reaction may not be on an individual basis, nor on a short time scale, but on an evolutionary scale. The bush may develop thorns, or toxins or the ability to coppice.  Lack of adaptation to browsing animals can be seen in some of the New Zealand vegetation, or in the devastating effects of alien beavers introduced to Patagonian wetland ecosystems. Normally we think of predators and prey being at least sentient and mobile. Even insects can be aware of one another and make avoidance reactions. Predation is natural and indeed unavoidable for the predators.  The lion does not have the option of eating grass. The whole ecosystem is predicated on predation and carnivory.  The killing of prey is not immoral, it is natural. Thus the wolf is morally inhibited from killing a member of its own group, but not in killing a prey animal.

Predatory behaviour is complex.  The predator that waits until it is hungry, or worse still, lean, before it starts to hunt, is doomed. While hunger is linked to the drive to hunt, hunting itself must start before then, while the predator is strong and with fat reserves. Predators must also be able to exploit temporary abundances or vulnerabilities of prey. Predators will kill more than for their immediate needs, like a fox in a chicken run. Some food may be cached, but not always. Humans do similarly and many marketing strategies rely on this behaviour. ‘Buy one, get one free’.

Natural and unnatural methods of predation.
Predation is a process as old as life on earth. It is one of the key evolutionary selection pressures.  Predators and their prey have evolved together in an evolutionary arms race. Just as predators have evolved bodies and senses, and search and attack strategies, so prey species have evolved ways of concealment, escape strategies and compensatory breeding strategies. Some more intelligent species, especially humans, developed the use of tools which enabled them to forage more efficiently.  Humans developed these tools from primitive spears, to traps, to bows and arrows, to guns, vehicles, radios and GPS tracking devices. On the evolutionary time scale this has been a sudden development, too quick for the prey species to evolve strategies in response. Cryptic plumage is no defence against thermal imaging detection devices. By winning the predation arms race, humans have destroyed the balance between predators and prey and now have the capacity to destroy wildlife at will. The result is that both intentionally and unintentionally, wildlife populations are plummeting both in numbers and in ranges.

Hunting with dogs and with raptors are the only forms of hunting which humans use that are still natural. The prey species have evolved to deal with their natural predators such as canids and raptors and by watching them one gains fascinating insights into the predator-prey interactions and into one’s own psychology as a predator.  The same can also be said about hunting by domestic cats, but the difficulty with that is that large numbers of cats are allowed out to hunt indiscriminately having a detrimental impact on many of their prey species, and entailing a lot of suffering because humans are not on hand to ensure death is quick. We made a submission on cats in the consultation to the Animal Welfare Bill in 2002.

Is predation just about food?
Most predation is about food. It is not a simple cause and effect relationship: ‘I am hungry therefore I will hunt’, but in the main, predation is a food thing. But predation can also include pest control, for example we hunt rats, and a lion may swat a troublesome fly. This at root is not predation but protection of a resource or defence of territory; in effect it is akin to war.

Where defence of resources is involved, a whole different suite of moral values kicks in. Killing an enemy soldier is no longer considered murder. Anything goes to achieve the end. Morality-based inhibitions that apply to members of one’s own group do not apply to members of another group. Time and time again in human history there have been groups of humans in positions of power who have regarded other groups as sub-humans and treated them as slaves or even killed them.
In pest control, as in predation for food, the efficiency strategy is minimum effort for maximum gain.

Recreational hunting.
Enjoyment can be thought of as satisfying an urge or drive. When we are hungry, we enjoy eating. We don’t enjoy eating when we are not hungry. But predatory behaviour, the urge to hunt, kicks in before the urge to eat. After eating, the predator may not want to hunt while the food is digested. (In falconry we say the falcon is ‘fed up’).  Predators practise hunting and also do real hunting when they are not hungry.  Just as athletes train and practise beforehand, so do predators; it is the same thing. A football team that only played in matches, without any practising, would not get far in the league table. Predators must constantly practise and they get enjoyment in satisfying that biological urge. Most hunting by domestic cats comes from the urge to hunt; they may be well fed already and they may not eat the prey once they have caught it. They just enjoy hunting. Similarly even a fat dog can hardly resist chasing a rabbit.
We have made radio-controlled prey for falcons to hunt.  Even though the falcons are fat they will chase them out of sight high into the sky. When they have caught it and landed, they do not bother to eat the food reward attached to it. See www.rofalconry.com.
Humans are the same. We hunt because we want to. We may not be hungry, but we feel a strong urge to hunt. We are hunting for enjoyment because we are predators.

From the point of view of biological impact, this turns the concept of ‘efficiency’ on its head. When hunting for food or as pest control, the most efficient strategy is maximum numbers of prey taken per minimum time and effort spent. When hunting for enjoyment the reverse is true. We wish to maximise the time and effort spent (because they are enjoyable) while minimising the impact on the resource (to maintain sustainability and minimise suffering).

In 1997 we published the second edition of ‘Welfare Aspects of Killing Wild Animals in Britain’ that examines the motives and the types and amounts of suffering entailed in killing or capturing wild vertebrates. One can always argue about statistics, and also update them, but the broad brush picture is clear. A lot of suffering that is hotly debated is relatively inconsequential, whereas there are other areas of immense suffering that are largely ignored.

One issue that we pursued further is wounding and maiming. We undertook a study on wounding rates in shooting foxes published in the Journal of Animal Welfare, click here to see and also made a film about it. Whereas shooting static animals such as deer with a rifle can be relatively humane http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0109698 shooting moving animals with a shotgun can entail wounding rates of 25-30% and suffering that can go on for weeks. http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/waterfowl/wounding-losses.aspx .

In contrast the natural methods using dogs or raptors entails little or no wounding at all. Of over 2,000 crows killed by trained falcons, all were killed quickly and none were wounded or maimed.

Animal Welfare has led to a lot of polarised debates and angst. At The Bevis Trust, although in the wider scheme of things welfare does not have top priority, we will continue to research how we can improve our methods and techniques to minimise suffering while acknowledging that Humans, as top predators are here and have a major impact on the environment, and that killing is both natural and a necessary consequence of managing wildlife and restoring its ecology.

Animal Welfare Projects:

Wounding Rates in Shooting Foxes
The Nature and Extent of Suffering Caused by Current Methods of Pest Control and Field Sports
Proposed Animal Welfare Bill
home  -  about us  -  vision  -  blog  -  projects  -  resources  -  get involved  -  contact