Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-334)



  Q320 Ms Atherton: I have a wonderful hedgehog sanctuary in my constituency. You could not get much smaller than a hedgehog sanctuary. It is much loved and much supported. It is run from a large house. I know that they regularly have veterinary visits and they visit the vets. I really cannot believe that you would get much smaller than this hedgehog sanctuary. Therefore, my concern is for some of the donkey sanctuaries, for example, which we have all read about in the press and seen on television. Surely, we need to ensure that both wild and domesticated animals are encompassed in this legislation?

  Mr Best: We are really worrying about the costs, are we not, rather than the ethics behind the Bill?

  Q321 Ms Atherton: If they cannot afford a veterinary visit, then I question whether they will call a vet to visit.

  Mr Best: I take your point, but I am still worried that a lot of units will take this as a sign and they will actually give up and close. That indication has been given to me time and time again in contacts with these smaller units. Whether it is sour grapes or not, I do not know.

  Q322 Joan Ruddock: My question flows on from the very points about the costs. I wonder to what extent there is a surplus need. Are there many more animals being found that need to be taken somewhere and a lack of places at the moment? What kind of balance is there between demand and supply? I presume that with a lot of sick wild animals, particularly those that have been injured, they cannot be taken any great distance, so there is some sort of need for quite a lot of places. I share Candy Atherton's concern totally because I have also come across, even in an urban setting, the cat problem. That point is very well taken. We obviously want to have better standards but I do think there is this question of provision. I wonder what would encourage or help people to be able to operate at a reasonable level with proper welfare on a fairly local basis so that people did not have to say that there are just 10 animal hospitals, or whatever it is.

  Mr Best: There is, I am sure, a much bigger demand for suitable places for casualties to be taken than exists at the moment, and the number is decreasing. I am a practising veterinary surgeon and I see this in my area. A veterinary practice very often is the first place a person would think to turn to when they are faced with a wildlife casualty. I hear from lots of my colleagues that they either have no local rehabilitation units that they can send the animals to once they have assessed them and given them first aid or, if they have, those are closing. I think this is a real concern. It puts great pressure on veterinary practices. I am afraid it does mean that a lot of animals are euthanased that may well, with care, have been able to be returned to the wild. It comes back to the business of costs and whether it is possible for a system of registration of smaller units to occur without them being charged for their registration.

  Q323 Patrick Hall: Is your Council a membership organisation?

  Mr Best: It is just a council of rehabilitation unit owners, veterinary surgeons and animal welfare charity members. We have members and a steering committee of 15.

  Q324 Patrick Hall: You refer to units and presumably not so much individuals, the people who look after these animals.

  Mr Best: They do vary from a small unit run by one person or a family up to a large hospital that would have staff and professional staff.

  Q325 Patrick Hall: In order for me to better understand what is possibly being presented by the draft Bill and what you are saying in response to that, I would like to hear from you what the current situation is vis-a"-vis sanctions and controls. I might be getting the impression that there are none with regard to even quite well established sanctuaries, never mind individuals who look after birds in the garden shed or something. What are the current sanctions and controls?

  Mr Best: The controls are the same controls that there are for the welfare of domesticated animals, companion animals.

  Q326 Patrick Hall: That would mean calling in the RSPCA or somebody else calling them for an inspection that is not very well resourced if something extreme had already happened? Is that fair?

  Mr Best: That is the way most of the cases of welfare abuses arise. They are few and far between in wildlife casualty units, but they do occur.

  Q327 Patrick Hall: That is what the law provides at the moment?

  Mr Best: Yes, and there is also special protection, under the Wildlife and the Countryside Act, for the scheduled species, the schedule 4 birds, but that is more about registration than welfare.

  Q328 Patrick Hall: Good practice goes well beyond that. There are units that pay vets and others to raise standards.

  Mr Best: Yes, and some have their own veterinary staff. Most of the veterinary assistance is done by a local practice very much on a charitable basis. Most of the units I know have a tame vet who does a lot of their work for them and maybe only charges costs.

  Q329 Patrick Hall: That brings me to your proposed two-tier system and the simpler registration scheme for the smaller units and presumably more active individuals as well that would be counted as a unit. I see a unit as involving several people but I suppose it need not necessarily. Who would carry out that inspection, which is presumably also under a registration scheme? I am asking you whether that would not also include advice on good practice but, if necessary, to challenge and maybe prosecute if things were not done properly. That suggests quite a few skilled resources being applied. Where do you think those would come from?

  Mr Best: This is a major problem. To my mind, the most obvious source of informed inspectors would be the RSPCA inspectorate. In each district, to my understanding, there is at least one inspector who has training in handling and dealing with wildlife. To my mind, these people could well form the basis of an inspectorate.

  Q330 Patrick Hall: Have you asked the RSPCA?

  Mr Best: Not formally.

  Q331 Patrick Hall: I am sure they would be delighted at your suggestion that they do a bit more work.

  Mr Best: The opinion was that they are overstretched at the moment. To my mind, this would be an excellent function for the people who have gone through the training in handling and dealing with wildlife. We are not talking about a vast amount of work. Nobody really knows the number of rehabilitation units in this country at the moment but I would doubt if it would be more than 300.

  Q332 Ms Atherton: Could we explore a little beyond where the Bill currently goes to an area in which I was interested in my previous life as a journalist. I wrote extensively about the reintroduction to the wild of barn owls that had been reared in rehabilitation centres. There was some debate as to whether this was cruelty because the barn owls, it was alleged, were less likely to thrive, more likely to get run over, and the mortality rate was significantly higher than among the wild population in its entirety. I was not conscious or aware that there was any legislation that could have stopped that happening if it had been definitively proved that this was quite detrimental to the barn owl population. Talking in a general sense, if a similar situation arose where it was definitively proved that it was to the detriment of wildlife if a householder had started doing something to protect birds which was not in their interest, do you think those sorts of issues should be taken on board, or is that going much further than you would want?

  Mr Best: It is going further than we are thinking at the moment but I am sure any code of practice would include stipulations on how rehabilitated animals and their release will affect the wild populations.

  Q333 Ms Atherton: That would be the practice and therefore that inevitably relies on people's goodwill?

  Mr Best: Yes, but is it not the intention that a code of practice made under the regulations of this Bill would actually become a statutory code of practice ultimately?

  Q334 Ms Atherton: It is a draft Bill.

  Mr Best: Yes, but it is good practice and it is an important point. It is a drum that we bang continuously that people who are holding casualties not only think of the casualty but think of the effect of releasing that animal into a wild population and the effect it may have on disease transmission or interaction between animals.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Best, for making yourself available to be questioned by the Committee. Thank you again for your written evidence. If there is anything else that would help with these exchanges that you want to clarify, do not feel inhibited from writing to us again.

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