Of all the tools in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s populist arsenal, animals are one particular favorite. During his stint as Secretary of State, he wrote diatribes against the “cretinous slaughter” of threatened pangolins by poachers; at the Conservative Party’s conference last year, he called for his government to use green reforms to “rebuild beavers” after the pandemic. The UK ensured that nature conservation was on the agenda at Cop26 last November, and beyond talks in Kenya this week Zac Goldsmith, the UK’s international environment minister, announced that the country would take a “leading role” in calling on countries to stop and reverse global biodiversity loss.
Yet while the UK government is making efforts to ensure an ambitious international agreement on biodiversity, there are signs that the political will is weakening at home, says Katie White of the World Wildlife Fund. “The UK Government should not back down on proposals to stop subsidies for harmful and polluting agricultural practices and to ensure that farmers are paid fairly to provide for nature and climate.”
Until recently, the Tory government appeared to be moving in the right direction, strengthening measures to better protect animals at home and abroad. Animal policy plays well with Brits voters, in 2017 poll by the RSPCA found that 81 percent of believed that animal welfare laws should be strengthened after the UK left the EU. The Johnson government has capitalized on this support by banning the export of live animals, gluing traps to capture animals, and buying and selling ivory, among other reforms. “The way we treat animals reflects our values and the kind of people we are,” said George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, in the Government’s Animal Welfare Action Plan last year. “We will continue to raise the bar, and we aim to take the rest of the world with us.”
However, the introduction of such legislation has not been without resistance from within the Tory ranks. When animal sentiment was restored to British law after Brexit, some conservative peers opposed it; improving the status of animals in Nazi Germany “contributed to the Holocaust”, Benjamin Mancroft himself stated during a debate in the House of Lords. “Anyone who wants to act in a disgusting way could use their good intentions to wander into unintended areas and hide government companies,” warned another peer, Greville Howard, when a commission was formed to advise the government on matters of animal feelings. “Animal rights are an extreme doctrine,” Mancroft added, suggesting that activists could use the new law to undermine any policy involving animal use – from agriculture to science.
[See also: Exclusive polling: How the Greens supplanted the Tories as the party of the countryside]
Such concerns about government supremacy have only grown in impact since the international focus on the UK’s green agenda was lifted after Cop26. Those who wrongly claim that the cost of living crisis requires a reduction in support for energy and green agricultural reforms have received new oxygen through the war in Ukraine. Food production should be given priority over rewilding initiatives, claims the farmer lobby, and in the government’s recent food strategy, obligations to protect animal welfare were watered down.
Meanwhile, as the fall of partygate has escalated, the prime minister has become increasingly dependent on the support of a small faction of right-wing free marketers, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities. Rees-Mogg defends the right to hunt, to wear fur and to exercise more general “personal choice” free from government control.
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Animal-linked policies have taken a hit as a result. A flagship bill to protect the welfare of animals abroad – including a ban on the import of fur, foie gras and hunting trophies of endangered species – was scrapped in March. ,[The bill was dropped] about the same time as partygate, ”says Claire Bass, executive director of Humane Society International, an NGO. “It was a perfect storm of Boris Johnson’s willingness to deliver on this policy that was undermined by his guilt to a small number of colleagues in his inner circle.”
When it comes to British wildlife, progress is equally quiet. The government has less than eight years to achieve its legally binding goal of halting the decline of biodiversity, yet a nature bill is missing in the 38 announced in the recent Queen’s speech. There is still no legal requirement for protected landscapes, such as national parks, to actively support nature; a national action plan on soil health and the reduction of pesticide use has not yet been published, and government statistics published last week show Tree plants are falling sharply short of the 30,000 acres per year by 2034 target (at only 13,800 new acres for 2021-2022). Nature-friendly mixed forests are essential for wildlife conservation and action on climate change, says Matt Williams of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a UK non-profit, but plant rates are “flatlining”.
A lack of parliamentary time due to the war in Ukraine was the official reason given for the cover on the Animals Abroad Bill. But it is not just this pressure that is blocking progress on nature, says Elliot Chapman-Jones of the Wildlife Trusts, a UK NGO. Major commitments do not need new legislation, “they just need the government to focus on getting the job done”. Instead of a new legally binding goal for improving protected sites, for example, it is a “waste of time” on reviewing the process of deciding which sites should be protected in the first place.
The government is defensive on all these fronts. It is “categorically untrue” that it fails to prioritize nature and biodiversity, says a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There will be “over time” action on the way, over everything from banning horticulture to reintroducing beavers, they say.
The fate of other species may seem less urgent at a time when cost of living is spiraling and carbon emissions continue to increase worldwide. Yet in the government’s own words: “The way we treat animals reflects our values and the kind of people we are.”
The causes that the prime minister has advocated – from the ban on trophy hunting (which he condemned as a “barbaric practice” in a 2019 tweet), to support for cheerful beavers – are now growing. The promise to “rebuild beaver” has disappeared, and with it the last threads of the Prime Minister’s integrity.
[See also: Does anyone care about Cop27?]