Examination of Witness

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:10 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Dr Hazel Wright gave evidence.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 4:28 pm, 9th November 2021

We move on to our final witness of the day, Dr Hazel Wright, senior policy officer at the Farmers Union of Wales, who is joining us virtually. We have until 5.30 pm. Dr Wright, please introduce yourself for the record.

Dr Wright:

My name is Dr Hazel Wright, and I am the senior policy officer for the Farmers Union of Wales.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Hello, Hazel. Thank you very much for giving evidence to us. I have only one question for you. We have heard today that livestock worrying and attacks have been a particular issue in Wales. Would you like to give us a summary of your experiences, and those of your members?

Dr Wright:

Yes; they are huge and longstanding. The Bill is well overdue in that regard. We have repeat attacks and offences on farms. A National Sheep Association survey said that one farm had been hit up to 100 times in one year. The financial and emotional consequences of that are huge. Surveys from North Wales police, which was the first police service to record the data, gave estimates of about 300 or 400 attacks in about three and a half years, which is one every three days. That is just in north Wales. In a system that has low profitability and low margins, those kinds of attacks are make or break for some businesses, especially those that have built up their breeding stock over long periods. They have managed to build businesses up from scratch. Some of them are having problems with succession, for example. It is a massive issue, which I cannot be overestimated in the current climate.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Good afternoon. Following up on that question, are you satisfied to that extent with the measures in the Bill or do you think that dogs should be kept on a lead near livestock?

Dr Wright:

Everything that I say from now on is caveated with the fact that the Bill is incredibly welcomed and is good news. However, I do not think it goes far enough to define under close control or proper control. We need to have a situation where dogs are on a lead in fields near or adjacent to livestock. I notice that the Bill says that if somebody believes their dog will return “reliably and promptly” then it is under close control, but I honestly do not believe that anyone can be confident that that would be the case when their dog is in a field near livestock. Dogs are natural predators—it is in their genetic make-up. I feel that the Bill needs to go one step further and ensure that dogs are kept on a lead.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Given what a big issue it is, do you think that the fines and the compensation mechanisms to farmers are sufficient?

Dr Wright:

No, I do not, actually. Because there are repeat offences, I feel that the seriousness of this in the past has not reached the critical level to be a deterrent for people. If we want it to be a deterrent and we want it to work, the fines have to be serious. They have to relate to the amount of financial devastation that there has been on farms. We are talking about tens of thousands of pounds of losses on some farms—and those losses are just financial, and do not include the other indirect losses with breeding stock, and so on. We have to take it seriously, and the fines should be increased.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs)

Q It is lovely to see you, Dr Wright. I want to come back to the previous questions and the definition of what is under control. You made it very clear that the Bill could be strengthened by omitting the second part of the definition and keeping it to a leash. Do you want to comment further as to whether we should look at the length of the lead? You made it very clear that it should be the case that a dog is under control if it is on a lead. Is there anything further that you want to add on that?

Dr Wright:

The length of “1.8 metres or less” seems reasonable. I cannot see a problem with that in and of itself. As you say, the Bill says “under proper control”, which is an arbitrary statement. It depends on the confidence of the dog walker, which may or may not be real-life situation confidence. I think that many people assume that their dog would come back when, actually, in that situation, it would not. It is a lack of understanding. I know I am reiterating what I said before, but it is so important for our membership to get this part right. I do not have a problem with the 1.8 metres, but I think dogs have to be on a lead when near or adjacent to livestock.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs)

Q Two further questions, if I may, Ms McVey. On one hand, we have heard a few people refer to the fact that a great number of the cases of livestock worrying occur when dogs escape their owners or when owners are not aware that their dog has escaped their garden, or wherever it is being kept. Do you have any proposals or ideas as to how the Bill could try to address that set of circumstances? We heard evidence from Mr Rob Taylor, suggesting that the vast majority of dog attacks occur when dogs escape their owners’ control.

Dr Wright:

According to the National Police Chiefs Council’s data, that is about 80% of attacks. Obviously, keeping dogs on leads would combat many of those issues.

First, the powers in the Bill for DNA sampling and evidence gathering are essentially crucial for that. Even when dogs are with dog walkers, the attack might not be witnessed and the dog might not be in the field when the farmer approaches it. We need to have a situation where police can gather evidence. Quite often, the police are aware of the dogs in the area that are the likely culprits of an attack because they tend to be repeat offenders.

The other thing we need to look at is mandatory reporting of those attacks, which allows you to look at regional approaches that might be different in different areas. For example, if you have data that says it is dogs escaping from dog walkers in one area, but it is dogs that have escaped from home in another, you can tailor your mitigation measures based on that data. Without data, you waste resources because you use them ineffectively.

The FUW ran a Your Dog, Your Responsibility campaign last year, which asked members of the public if they knew where their dog was when they were not at home. We talked about appropriate boundaries in fencing for those animals because we know, from the data, that 80% of dog attacks occur when the owner is not around. We would not have run that campaign without those data, so we have to start making sure that we record such information in order to adopt regional approaches and, as I say, to have the mitigation measures match where the problems are.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs)

Q I know that the matter of compensation has already been touched on, and you have made it very clear that the financial cost, let alone the emotional trauma that a dog attack can have on a farming business, is significant. Do you have any comments about how we may go about trying to offer some sort of compensation regime? Perhaps you could also comment on the situation regarding the financial cost for a farmer who loses livestock. Is there any way at the moment for them to recoup some of that financial cost?

Dr Wright:

You could do it through the civil courts, but that is very onerous and difficult for the farmer. In the past, it has been very difficult to prove which dog was responsible for an attack. I am hoping that the new powers offered to police under the Bill—as opposed to the 1953 Act, which basically left them powerless—will give people more confidence in forces dealing with the attacks, which will bring more farmers forward in order to start proceedings against individuals. I would like to see that it is easy, simple and straightforward, and not expensive, for a farmer to do that. At the moment, farmers are victims of a crime, but they are not being recompensed for that in the way that maybe another victim of a crime would have support.

We need a support network for farmers who have gone through this ordeal. We have 12 regional county officers who provide support to our members. Official and proper support is also needed to deal with the emotional and financial impact, and to signpost farmers to how they go about launching legal proceedings. We should not expect them to take the burden upon themselves, especially at a time when it could be very difficult financially for them.

Photo of James Grundy James Grundy Conservative, Leigh

Q We discussed earlier today the propensity of dogs to potentially commit repeat attacks. Is it your opinion that once a dog has become a sheep killer, it is highly likely to attack and/or kill sheep again?

Dr Wright:

Yes, I do think that. I also think that that is part and parcel of poor ownership. We talk about dog attacks, but a lot of this is actually to do with the irresponsible ownership of a dog and how a dog has been allowed to behave in the past. I am certainly not an advocate for saying that every dog that attacks sheep should be destroyed—of course not. Every case has to go on its merits, but given the data that I have seen and the conversations that I have had, it tends to be repeat offenders in many cases.

Photo of James Grundy James Grundy Conservative, Leigh

That is incredibly helpful. Thank you very much.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Q Dr Wright, thank you very much for your evidence, which has been very helpful indeed. One issue is that if the vast majority of attacks on livestock come from animals that are in somebody’s back garden or that escape from some form of premises, there are obviously some legal difficulties in respect of that, because no Bill will ever be able to say that someone must have a fence that is 6 foot tall, 7 foot tall or whatever. What is your feeling about that? I think you would probably accept, Dr Wright, that we cannot ever produce legislation that will be specific enough to cover every possible eventuality. One of the things that we are talking about is criminalising the behaviour of people who do not know that their animals are potentially attacking sheep. You can commit a criminal offence, even though you did not know that you were doing so. Then the definition of “irresponsibility” becomes very difficult when a dog is in somebody’s back yard. Do you have any views on that?

Dr Wright:

We have had a lot of conversations with members about how things happen with livestock worrying after the horse bolted, because, in effect, you are trying to find the culprit of an attack that has already happened. I do not think that we will ever get to a situation whereby we can prevent every single attack—that is absolutely correct. I am hoping that the Bill will increase the seriousness of the offence, so that people understand that even if they are not present at the time and there are no witnesses, a police officer could knock at the door with a warrant, take a DNA sample from the dog and compare it with DNA collected at a crime scene. You do not have to have been around at the time of the offence.

I am hoping that intelligence within communities will help as well. When you do not legitimise something and say that it is just one of those things, when legislation comes in and says, “Actually, we’re taking this seriously, because this is a very important issue,” the fines, the powers for police, the enforcement and the investigation display our strength with this and how important we feel it is, and that will feed back to communities where there have been problems and help the police in their ability to do something about it. In some respects, I know it is after the horses have bolted, but I am hoping we can close the door to stop any more horses escaping. That is the analogy I give to farmers, because as you say, you would never solve it 100% of the time. What we need to get to is that when dog owners are thinking about their dogs, they understand that there are serious consequences to this.

There is a responsibility on industry to communicate that as well. I happen to sit on the Animal Welfare Network Wales, which has a lot of animal charities on it as well, and I have been using their groups to disseminate to their members—the people who would not necessarily speak to the union but would speak to, say, other animal charities about how to look after their dogs. So there are ways and means to get the intelligence out there to those people who maybe would not have known about it before. As you say, we are not going to get everyone, but I am hoping that by committing what we have done so far to it we can potentially stop future attacks.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Thank you, Dr Wright; that is very helpful indeed.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Thank you, Dr Wright. Nice to see you. I just want to play devil’s advocate on a quick question. We have heard a lot about animals that escape and they tend to carry out the vast majority of the attacks. Is there any leverage—again, this is me definitely playing devil’s advocate—in farmers and landowners constantly updating the signage on their gates and fences? If you live in the same area and there is always a livestock grazing sign on the same field and you know that three quarters of the year there is not anything in there at all, people become complacent about walking their dogs and will let them off, not necessarily knowing that the livestock might be over the brow of the hill. Would your members be open to doing something like that if you think it might help? Is that something you think we should be writing into the Bill, or that just gets out because it is good practiceQ ?

Dr Wright:

It is interesting, because we provide signs for members but we have been constrained by what we can and cannot say legally, because we cannot say that dogs must be kept on a lead near livestock. What we say is, “Please keep your dog on a lead” near livestock at the moment. I am hoping, with the Bill, assuming that I get the change that I would like to see, which is that they must be on a lead and not just with this arbitrary “proper control” definition, that members can put more enforcing signs up that are a bit more important than the ones they put up before. When a dog walker sees a sign that says, “Please keep your dog on a lead”, it is quite gentle, is it not? If the sign says, “It is a legal requirement for your dog to be on a lead in this field”, it is a different conversation. I would like a farmer to be able to do that. Without the Bill allowing them to do that, you put them in a position where they are still having to just be polite, and I would like them to be backed up by legislation to do that.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Q So you think your members would do that? The reason I ask is that if somebody sees a sign that says there is a bull in the field, they will avoid that field because they know they could potentially get hurt, but at the moment, the same conversation is not being had about the animal being hurt or an animal getting into trouble for hurting another animal. We need to change the conversation slightly and I think that is potentially something we could cover in this Bill—maybe. However, it is no good if landowners and farmers are not receptive to keeping the signage updated and changing it as and when it is necessary—and taking it down when there are no livestock in the field.

Dr Wright:

That is a really important point and I am 100% certain that members are receptive to that. It is just that they have felt at the moment that they have not had the power to say the things they have wanted to say. Of course, members who have approached members of the public in a field with a dog off a lead have sometimes been victims of verbal abuse, and many of my members have said they are just not prepared to engage with dog walkers under those circumstances, because they have not been able to say, “You must do this.” I feel that is what we have been missing before.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

If there are no further questions, on behalf of us all, I thank Dr Hazel Wright, senior policy officer at the Farmers Union of Wales.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till Tuesday 16 November at twenty-five minutes past Nine o'clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

AWB01 Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

AWB02 Dogs Trust

AWB03 Blue Cross

AWB04 British Veterinary Association

AWB04a British Veterinary Association Annex A: Keeping Primates (England)—BVA, British Veterinary Zoological Society and British Small Animal Veterinary Association briefing on proposed amendments

AWB05 Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre