Everyone in racing, and particularly those involved with breeding, have an affinity with our horses, whether it is helping them into the world as foals, looking after them throughout their lifetime, or as a racegoer or armchair punter following a favourite racehorse. We all have our own ways of thinking about and caring for them and their futures.
We foster an excellent habitat for wildlife, we create local rural employment, and we look after our horses often better than ourselves. Please Mr Gove, we trust you will recognise all this and support us
The recent debate about the rights of animals and their existence as ‘sentient beings’ has sparked controversy across a spectrum from jellyfish to lobsters, farm animals to apes. Somehow this argument needs to be brought back on to the middle ground, where animal welfare can be discussed in a rational and more sensible way.
The topic came to the fore in the middle of December, when Michael Gove, the secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), published a draft document with the rather unwieldy title of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill.
According to the explanatory notes, the bill “sets out the details of laws the government plans to make, introducing new penalties for animal cruelty, and covering other animal welfare issues.” Its essential elements are that the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences will go up from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment, and it will ensure that animals are defined in UK law as sentient beings.
The bill is Mr Gove’s latest departmental action after he was handed the DEFRA job last June. This in itself marked a return to the government’s front benches for the former education and justice secretary, following his failed party leadership bid.
Recently described by close allies, according to a media report, as having been transformed from “a shy green into a full-throated environmentalist,” on account of the enthusiasm he has brought to his latest ministerial role, Mr Gove is a committed Brexiter. His bill is framed to ensure “animals will not lose any recognitions or protections once we leave the EU,” he says.
From racing’s point of view, the health and welfare of racehorses is vitally important. Any animal who is not in the best of health is unlikely to breed successfully or to perform well on the racecourse.
Those of us who live with horses know they are sentient. They have characters; they feel pain and they have good and bad days. So, as fellow sentient beings, we do our best to alleviate or manage these issues in the racehorse as best we can.
Years of experience working with the thoroughbred have taught us how to ensure their wellbeing and happiness, wherever possible, and with the BHA’s new 30-day foal notification system the industry now knows the whereabouts of horses from birth. We do not need a raft of legislation or governance rules to ensure we look after the thoroughbreds in our care.
As sentience seems to cover the entire animal world, it set me thinking about how our studs offer exactly the wildlife-friendly environment that DEFRA – from its minister to its officials – is so keen to recreate in the world after Brexit.
Our hedgerows and grass paddocks, often with their variety of herbage and little input from artificial fertilisers or chemical sprays, are just the habitats being talked about as needing to be encouraged and grant-aided, in order to support those sentient birds and mammals, butterflies and other insects that we all enjoy seeing. Our studs are a haven for this wildlife and we all benefit from the oasis of natural history that studs can provide from the arable fields beyond.
It is important that those making decisions in DEFRA recognise that the environment to be found on British studs needs encouraging and nurturing. Any new plans for government support after Brexit should take into account what thoroughbred stud farms do, and can do, to enhance the rich and varied biodiversity that is so cherished.
We foster an excellent habitat for wildlife, we create local rural employment, and we look after our horses often better than ourselves. Please Mr Gove, we trust you will recognise all this and support us.