Farm Animal Welfare

There are few philanthropist farmers. Most farmers are in the business of farming to make a living, accordingly, the health of their animals is important to them. Every farmer will know the horror of notifyable diseases sweeping the stock, whatever the species. The welfare of farm animals is, therefore, important to farmers but primarily for business and financial purposes.

Others concerned with animals are not particularly interested in the financial reasons for animal health but their interest focuses on moral welfare. So often I hear, in the courts, witnesses from animal rights pressure groups putting not only the moral aspects of animal welfare as a priority but even the animals' comforts as such.

Whilst there are a number of regulations which deal with the suffering of farm animals, the main piece of legislation is the Protection of Animals Act 1911. This Act deals with cruelty, or the causation of unnecessary suffering. However, where the welfare of an animal is in issue, that which distinguishes bad husbandry from a criminal offence of causing cruelty is an area of dispute between farmers and animal rights pressure groups.

Parliament decided, many years ago, that such organisations as the RSPCA would not be given powers to deal with offences under this Act. Such powers of arrest and seizure of animals were given to, and remain with, the police. Nevertheless, the officers of the RSPCA wear uniforms, are designated by a rank structure, are supported by a large legal and public relations organisation and are generally left, by the police, to attend to allegations concerning animals.

Accordingly, RSPCA officers, having the appearance of policemen, make enquiries into allegations arising from information coming to them. The welfare of the animal is their main concern and often appears to take precedence over other considerations such as trespass on farmland or to animals as property and the general rules covering police investigations. RSPCA have no powers to ask questions and no powers to demand answers. They have no rights to enter premises, nor to arrest people. Nevertheless, their appearance in uniform and the manner of their demeanour often leads people to believe that they do indeed possess such powers as are possessed by the police.

Once any person is permitted on premises then, until he or she is told to go and given the opportunity to do so, he or she does not become a trespasser. A farmer faced with a uniformed RSPCA officer entering his farmland and seeking answers to questions may well feel that he or she is obliged to allow that officer onto the premises and to answer the questions. Experience has shown that whilst, no doubt, these officers are following the instructions and the training which they have been given, they are not always right in what they do or how they do it. Accordingly, any farmer faced with this situation will be well advised to telephone his contacts in the NFU, his own solicitor or any specialist solicitor dealing with animal law before he makes any comment or answers any questions at all. Certainly he should not allow any of his animals to be removed from his premises without legal advice and failure to follow this advice is likely to lead to a prosecution. Entries by freelance animal activists or the RSPCA are just as likely to take place at night and at weekends than in working days. Very often RSPCA officers, in concert with the police, will seek to make “inspections” during the working day. However, their intention will in fact be to collect evidence to support prosecutions. Neither the police nor the RSPCA have an automatic right of entry onto your premises. They need your permission. Police would only have a right of entry if they arrested you first. Some police claim they have a right of entry to prevent damage to property i.e. your animals but that claim has not been tested in the higher courts.

Lately, it seems that certain RSPCA officers are concentrating on livestock farmers. One of the areas of clear disagreement between farmers and some RSPCA inspectors concerns the treatment of animals which are not 100% fit. Farmers are used to dealing with minor ailments themselves in the normal course of husbandry. Indeed, often they will have taken veterinary advice, either generally or specifically, and will be following that advice. They will be following the codes of conduct laid down in various government publications and doing their very best for the sick animal. Some RSPCA officers, however, seem to think that unless the farmer calls a veterinary surgeon to treat the animal then there is the commission of an offence of causing unnecessary suffering through an omission to call a veterinary surgeon. This interpretation of the effects of the Protection of Animals Act 1911 has yet to be tested in the higher courts and each case is usually decided on its own merits. It is certainly my view that many cases which reach the courts because prosecutions are brought by the RSPCA should not be taking up court time and certainly do the animal concerned no good. However, once in court, magistrates seem most reluctant to dismiss charges brought by this charitable organisation even though a shoplifter or burglar may be given the benefit of the doubt. The farmer prosecuted by the RSPCA seems not to be.

The answer is, therefore, follow the MAFF codes of conduct, have regular contact with your vet and if visited by RSPCA to seek legal advice by telephone immediately before permitting entry onto the farm or permitting it to continue once entry has been made and certainly not answering any questions or making any comments until that legal advice has been given. The rules that apply to policemen in police stations concerning warning people and giving them access to legal advice does not apply to RSPCA officers on your own farm- so beware!

MATTHEW KNIGHT is the senior partner of Knights solicitors of 25 High Street, Tunbridge Wells, Kent. TN1 1UT, one of the NFU panel of solicitors.

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