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Chris Sherwood: Celebrating two centuries of animal welfare law

5 min read

Whenever I meet with MPs in Westminster, it's hard to not be struck by the history and splendour of Parliament.

For hundreds of years, decisions influencing every aspect of our lives have been made there – and it's easy to get lost not only in Westminster's many winding corridors but when taking in the sheer significance of the place.

But it was some 200 years ago today July 22 that those decisions really began to influence animals, rather than just humans, for the better - as the first piece of animal welfare law in the world came into being.

These days, it's not uncommon to speak of the United Kingdom as being four nations united by a love of animals. But it wasn't always the case. How we think about the place of animals in our society has been revolutionised over two centuries. Indeed, as journalist Henry Mance noted, as part of our new essay collection – What Have Animals Ever Done for Us? – political debate at that time centred on visible cruelty to animals, as scenes like beating of sick animals or baiting bulls were sadly all too common. Indeed, there was even a dog fighting pit outside the Houses of Parliament.

Previous attempts to legislate to protect animals had failed. It took the bravery of Richard Martin, aka “Humanity Dick”, to pioneer the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, now commonly cited as Martin's Act.  He was outraged at the cruelty meted out to cattle daily going to Smithfields Market as he passed on the way to Parliament and felt more should be done to protect them.

There is a significant opportunity for the new Prime Minister to lead us towards a new era for domestic animal welfare policy

The Bill's journey through Parliament was not an easy ride. It hobbled through by 29 votes to 18 at Second Reading, and Martin fiercely attacked the Attorney General's opposition, citing that he'd "placed himself in opposition to the common sense of the whole nation". The Galway MP later resisted further calls to withdraw the Bill at Third Reading. But, after much debate, the first piece of animal welfare law in recorded history made its way onto the statute book.  

The Act protected particular species – making it a crime to beat cattle, oxen, horses and sheep. Yet, ultimately, paved the way for helping every animal in the UK. The significance of that moment for animals cannot be understated. While the law has come on leaps and bounds for animals since, the road to the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, which our frontline officers so rely on, would not have been possible without Martin's bravery. 

It also paved the way for the very existence of the first ever animal welfare charity - the SPCA was formed two years later in part to enforce that 1822 Act, and 16 years later we were bestowed a Royal patronage to become the RSPCA by Queen Victoria.

Two centuries on, and we find ourselves at a new crossroads for animal welfare. Much has changed since that day, and the RSPCA's new Animal Kindness Index reminds us that we now truly are nations of animal lovers, regularly carrying out acts of goodwill to our fellow creatures.

But with a new Prime Minister only weeks away, the next 200 days will tell us much about whether the newly appointed Cabinet prioritises animal welfare, and whether they share the vision of Humanity Dick. With the government’s Kept Animals Bill in limbo for months, an Animals Abroad Bill seemingly dropped, and consultations awaited on things like banning cages for laying hens and snares; the new government needs to show some of Martin's mettle to get things done.

With animal sentience now enshrined in law, there is a significant opportunity for the new Prime Minister to lead us towards a new era for domestic animal welfare policy – where initiatives look beyond avoiding suffering, but towards an understanding that animals should be having positive experiences and recognising the interconnectedness of animal and human well-being.

Animal welfare is now almost entirely devolved, meaning animal advocates in the UK must lobby four administrations, not one. Yet, it is when countries work together that they often achieve the most. That is going to be so important as future challenges for animal welfare are increasingly globalised, and will require an international response – whether that be the role prioritising animal welfare can play in tackling climate change, preventing habitat destruction, promoting ethical trade policy or even combating societal loneliness. Fortunately, I truly believe that Martin’s Act inspired a global animal protection movement which is beginning to increase its impact at the multilateral level.

Indeed, in March we were thrilled to see the passage, at the United Nations Environment Assembly, of the first ever resolution to include animal welfare in its title. This landmark resolution calls for the UN Environment Programme to produce a Nexus Report, identifying the crucial links between animal welfare, the environment and sustainable development. The RSPCA is a key partner in a broad coalition of NGOs supporting member states with this which we see as a springboard to embedding animal welfare in policy globally.

In the long term we hope for a Universal Declaration for Animal Welfare and potentially a UN Convention to protect animals worldwide. If that aim is ever achieved, it will owe much to Humanity Dick and his 1822 Martin’s Act enacted by the Westminster Parliament.


Chris Sherwood is chief executive of the RSPCA.

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