Scottish Animal Welfare Commission - wildlife and animal welfare: position

A position paper on wildlife and animal welfare by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission.

The Scottish Animal Welfare Commission (SAWC) defines animal welfare as: ‘the mental and physical state of an individual as it experiences and engages with its environment’. This definition can be applied to any sentient animal and takes account of the relatively recent widespread recognition of the importance of sentience to the individual. Thus from the outset the importance of welfare to wild animals is recognised.

SAWC defines animal sentience as: ‘the ability to have physical and emotional experiences, which matter to the animal, and which can be positive and negative’.  

Animal welfare is all about the sentient individual and its perception of the world around it; key aspects include its ability to both predict and successfully adapt to changing circumstances through its own agency. (The term “stress” has long been associated with negative animal welfare but is just one aspect of an animal’s current welfare state, particularly when unable to adapt).

Note that this definition differs from the legal view, as described by the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, which focuses on the actions to be taken by those with responsibility for animals. Our definition of welfare encompasses all sentient animals, whether free-living or under the control of humans, and focuses on the animals’ state rather than human actions.

In having regard to the welfare of an animal, there needs to be a way to assess its current welfare state and to be able to monitor impacts that might affect this. Some human acts or omissions directly affecting animal welfare are covered by legislation or codes of practice, but many are not. At the same time, human acts or omissions may also have indirect impact. For both livestock and other animals kept by people, legislation focussed historically on the avoidance of harm and the resultant negative affective state, but a modern interpretation of welfare, reflecting an animal’s mental state, needs to encompass positive aspects too, for example through the provision of resources and opportunities for animals to engage in rewarding behaviours. We are only just beginning in our work to accurately capture all aspects of an animal’s mental state, but we can see evidence of this in the transition from the well-known Five Freedoms (defined in 1979) to the more explicit Five Welfare Needs (outlined in the 2006 Act) and more recently, through the Five Domains approach (the most recent iteration of which was published in 2020) where physical / functional and situational aspects feed into an assessment of an animal’s mental state or affects.

In relation to livestock, the AWC (formerly FAWC) recognised that the cumulative welfare state of any animal could lead to it experiencing a good life, a life worth living or a life not worth living and systems that led to the latter were to be avoided. In many cases, the first two categories could be achieved by providing conditions that best suited the animal’s needs. Regarding wildlife, this type of categorisation has not generally been found useful. Their protection has to date been through the minimisation or avoidance of harms that might occur through direct human interaction. From the foregoing it should be clear that the welfare state of a wild animal and its assessment are not distinctly different from any kept animal, but evaluation is more difficult and currently less well developed. 

Using terms such as “pest” or “vermin” in some circumstances leads to a widespread disregard of the importance of welfare to some wildlife species, including where the same species may be treated very differently under different contexts. It is important that when management decisions are taken which could impact on wildlife, the welfare of the individual involved is taken fully into account. One way that this can be achieved is by implementing the approach described in the International consensus principles for ethical wildlife control and applying its seven principles (Dubois et al., 2017). While not outlawing legitimate wildlife control, application of these principles works through a process of refining options and achieving a socially-acceptable goals while causing the least welfare harm when looking at situations where there is potential human-wildlife conflict. By applying this approach, for example, the use of snares to control foxes and rabbits would begin with addressing issues such as why control is needed, whether human practices can be modified and ensuring objectives are clear and achievable.  

If some form of wild animal management is deemed to be needed (based on established ethical principles (Dubois et al., 2017), the methods adopted should prioritise animal welfare by causing the least welfare harm and acknowledging that many methods will cause suffering, but that this should be minimised. Our current state of knowledge may not lead to absolute clarity and agreement on all of the steps in the process, but engaging in this type of analysis and reflecting on likely harms offers currently the best approach to deliver a welfare-friendly outcome (or at least one which causes the least welfare harm). Any decisions need to be reviewed periodically in the light of new evidence and the delivery of expected outcomes. For example, wildlife control activities, such as the use of snares, that simply deliver the status quo are likely to be socially unacceptable.

Human-wildlife conflicts can arise in a variety of situations, for example: the siting and construction of new roads and other infrastructure, the proximity of seals to fish farms and the use of acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs), the increase in the urban fox population and the growth in the beaver population in certain catchments. Applying the seven principles for ethical wildlife control (Dubois et al., 2017) could be valuable, for example, in the way beavers are managed in Scotland, especially in catchments where they are or are likely to cause significant damage, mostly to riparian structures. Working through these principles would suggest that if the risk of economic or environmental harm is real and cannot be mitigated by, for example, structural changes to the environment (issues of cost are an important but not overriding element in the deliberation) then beaver removal may be necessary. This could be by lethal means deemed the most humane or by non-lethal means such as translocation. There will be direct and possibly indirect welfare impacts, which may extend beyond the animal under control, of any method chosen and these will need to be properly evaluated, ideally with a wide range of stakeholder/public/expert engagement. For example, by applying the approach described by Sharp and Saunders in 2011 it would be possible to approximate welfare costs and attribute a degree of reliability. Such an approach would tend to lead to a durable and widely-accepted outcome; a recognised difficulty relates to our poor understanding of the welfare status of most wild animals. Again, decisions need to be re-evaluated after a period of implementation or if circumstances change. This approach could also be used in cases where there is a perceived conflict between wildlife species (or there is a desire to manage one wildlife species to protect another), for example when there is predation of one wildlife species on another, especially when the prey species is one of conservation concern. However, there is debate about the reach of human responsibility into genuinely wild situations.     

When making assessments based on contemporary processes which infer mental states from measurable physical and functional aspects, we must recognise that our current ability to evaluate wild animal welfare is in its infancy, but that does not mean we should not try. Making assessments about the welfare of animals in the wild, particularly in relation to positive aspects noted at the start, is challenging (see Browning and Velt, 2023).

This paper aims to provide a simple summary of SAWC’s current thinking and to stimulate debate. It is not set out as a fully referenced article but by following the main links provided, more information can be accessed.

References/further reading

Arndt, S.S., Goerelich, V.C., van der Staay, J. (2022) A dynamic concept of animal welfare: The role of appetitive and adverse internal and external factors and the animal’s ability to adapt to them. Frontiers in Animal Science, 3:908513

Browning, H., Velt, W. (2023) Positive Wild Animal Welfare. Biology and Philosophy, 38:14

Dubois, S., Fenwick, N., Ryan, E. A., Baker, L., Baker, S. E., Beausoleil, N. J., Carter, S., Cartwright, B., Costa, F., Draper, C., Griffin, J., Grogan, A., Howald, G., Jones, B., Littin, K. E., Lombard, A. T., Mellor, D. J., Ramp, D., Schuppli, C. A., Fraser, D. (2017). International consensus principles for ethical wildlife control. Conservation Biology, Volume 31, No. 4, 753–760

Mellor, D.J., Beausoleil, N.J., Littlewood, K.E., McLean, A.N., McGreevy, P.D., Jones, B., Wilkins, C. (2020) The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including Human–Animal Interactions in Assessments of Animal Welfare. Animals, 10(10): 1870 

Sharp,T., Saunders, G. (2011). A model for assessing the relative humaneness of pest animal control methods (Second edition). Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Canberra, ACT. Printed by: New Millennium Print 5D 2020 version

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