Photo: Out of scope: licensed club sales of surplus birds are NOT affected by the new law

 

The new Animal Activities Licensing regulations became law in England on October 1. Editor Rob Innes explains what the new law is intended to do, and how Cage & Aviary Birds has sought to ensure fanciers don’t unwittingly fall foul of it

 

ANIMAL welfare, in this country, is overseen mainly by our local authorities. Since the financial crisis of 2008, those bodies have come under pressure, with drastic cuts in central government funding. Meanwhile, their statutory obligations – to people, of course, as well as the animals they are responsible for – haven’t gone away. They need to fulfil their duties just as thoroughly but more efficiently. But if the laws that define their obligations aren’t clear, they can’t do so.

What’s more, society’s relations with animals have changed, with new types of business emerging in response: not only kennels and catteries, but home-boarding and day-care businesses. Commercial breeding, of dogs especially, has changed with the impact of online buying and selling. People make a living hiring out horses. And the local authorities, trying to keep welfare standards consistent across the country, have struggled to apply laws written to meet the conditions that applied half a century ago. They have requested clarity and guidance, and DEFRA has responded.

That’s the background to the new Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 (for short, Animal Activities Licensing or AAL). Note it says “England”: the new law doesn’t yet apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, though DEFRA’s position is that those administrations could adopt it wholesale.

However, this is all about dogs, cats and horses, isn’t it? OK, we’d probably all agree that, if you’re running a commercial business that involves those animals, you should be licensed and subject to welfare inspection. But what’s that got to do with birdkeeping?

The DEFRA answer is “nothing” (see below), but the catch is that the new regulations cover “all taxa”, not only dogs and cats. (Aquaculture is an exception.) The new law applies to those who sell any type of “pet” animal or bird. If they are deemed to be acting commercially, they must apply and pay for a licence, which commits them to a stack of regulations about housing, training and inspection. If you’re licensed, basically you are a petshop.

Now, birdkeepers sell birds, quite openly. Shouldn’t they all be licensed? If they were, it would kill the fancy: we’d suffocate under the mass of expense, paperwork, bureaucracy and other palaver. And bird welfare would suffer too, since captive gene pools would be blighted if surplus selling were hampered.

The good news is that DEFRA plainly accepts that hobbyist fanciers, selling their surplus stock to like-minded breeders, aren’t commercial and shouldn’t need a licence. But DEFRA makes the law; it doesn’t implement it – that’s down to the local authority inspectors. What if your local inspector doesn’t approve of birdkeeping and wants to make life tough for fanciers? If the law doesn’t clearly protect you, what’s to stop them? Well-defined criteria and transparent guidelines for inspectors are needed, which say: “Hands off the fancy.”

When Cage & Aviary Birds first saw the draft AAL regulations earlier this year, we were instantly concerned that the protection for birdkeepers looked inadequate. For example, the draft said that if a bird or animal were offered for sale for a “fixed fee”, that was a commercial activity which needed to be licensed. Imagine if that regulation were rigidly enforced! And there were other potential loopholes. However, the time-frame was tight, with a deadline of October 1 for the new law coming into power. Could we argue for greater clarity for birdkeepers in that time?

The answer was yes up to a point, thanks to the initiative of former Parrot Society chairman and long-time friend of Cage & Aviary Birds, Colin O’Hara, who was able to arrange a meeting with the DEFRA decision-makers. Colin and I put our case and then corresponded further with the department. Regrettably, we were not able to report on this publicly at the time, so our efforts were behind the scenes. But DEFRA did follow some of our suggested changes to the wording and I hope the regulations are a bit clearer as a result. They also wrote for us the public statement below, to make plain that AAL is not intended to apply to hobbyist bird breeders. I welcome the statement, of course, with the proviso that, as already noted, DEFRA makes the law but it’s other people who apply it.

 

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