President’s speech at AGM

A year ago I told you of the severest threat to our traditional docked breeds that we had ever experienced. The animal welfare Minister, Elliott Morley, had announced to the world that he would be introducing a new Animal Welfare Bill, and that a ban on the docking of dogs’ tails was to be part of that Bill.

Well here we are, twelve months on. Elliot Morley is no longer animal welfare Minister, and we are still awaiting news from his successor as to whether or not there will be a Bill, and whether or not a docking ban will be part of it. Next week’s Queen’s Speech, which announces the Government’s programme of legislation for the coming Parliamentary year, will be listened to with particular interest by those of us in the CDB.

The work of preparing legislation falls not on Ministers but on civil servants, and Defra officials were certainly kept busy during the early part of this year with the representations on animal welfare issues which were made by a variety of bodies, including of course the CDB. They even expressed some surprise that, of all the possible ingredients that might be baked within their animal welfare cake – perhaps pudding is a better word – docking was the one over which they had received most correspondence. Well, if they were surprised, then I certainly wasn’t.

They set up a series of meetings at which different groups of organisations came together to discuss elements of the proposed Bill with officials. There was a group to discuss farming matters, one to look at the game and sporting interest, and one to consider canine and feline issues. Docking featured in all of the meetings. At the sporting meeting, our friends from the BASC and the Countryside Alliance argued vociferously against a docking ban, whilst the CDB gave a good account of itself at the meeting attended by the ‘dog interest’.

In due course we heard rumours – nothing is ever confirmed by civil servants – that there was to be ‘an exemption’ from ‘a docking ban’ for ‘working gundogs’. Careful reading of Morley’s words when he announced the results of his infamous public consultation allow for this, so when the news broke in The Times on the Saturday of Crufts, we hardly considered it earth-shattering. But I do find a partial exemption to a theoretical ban on docking a bit baffling.

For a start, what on earth is a working gundog? The CDB pointed out to The Times countryside editor that terriers are most definitely worked in the shooting field, even if they are not gundogs in the strict sense of the word, so they should be eligible for exemption. And when is a working gundog not a working gundog? How many times does a springer spaniel have to venture forth into the bramble thickets before it qualifies? Can it sleep by the fire three hundred days in the year and still be a working dog? Three hundred and fifty? Three hundred and sixty? Remember that those five working days may be very important to its owner.

And given that when docking actually takes place it has not actually worked a single day because it is only 48 hours old, where does the definition of working gundog leave us? Probably in exactly the same position we are in at present. The matter is, or should be, left to the discretion of the veterinary surgeon.

And if he is to use his discretion, then why cannot he make a judgement about the likelihood of future tail damage in breeds that are not normally seen in the shooting field? I believe an exemption for working gundogs asks far more questions than it provides answers, but that is probably all to the good, so far as safeguarding all our docked breeds is concerned.

The Kennel Club attended one of the meetings with Defra, but it has studiously sat on the fence over docking, declaring itself to be ‘neutral’. I am increasingly of the view, however, that it is not neutral at all, and that it feels a ban on docking would rid it of a tiresome problem. The Kennel Club has shown a tendency in the last few months to put on the costume of a campaigning animal welfare lobby group. It has argued in favour of legislation to restrict the sale and possession of fireworks, and it has lobbied for a Bill to ban electric training collars. Now I don’t know what your opinions are about fireworks or electric training collars, but even if you don’t like either of them, I put it to you that banning legislation is a bit of a blunt instrument. Yet the Kennel club appears to be firmly wedded to a ban. When asked whether more rigorous attention to the people who abuse electric collars might be better than a ban on the collars themselves, the KC indicated that such devices would always be open to abuse. Well you can abuse dogs with sticks, but are we going to ban sticks?

Could it be that the KC is playing to a Government whose natural tendency is to ban anything it regards as politically incorrect, like foxhunting and members of the House of Lords?

We know also that the Government is still considering whether to sign the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. Mr Morley, when asked about the Convention, said that while he was ‘sensitive’ to the concerns of dog breeders that some breeds were under threat, he considered parts of the Convention to be ‘logical’. He said that while he still had an open mind, he was drawn to many of the clauses contained in the Convention. Open mind?

Mr Morley, however, is no more. He was replaced this summer by Ben Bradshaw, the MP for Exeter. We have not yet been able to establish whether the change of Minister at Defra indicates any change in policy, for so far Mr Bradshaw has not pronounced publicly on docking. Correspondence to CDB members, however, indicates at least that he may have more of an open mind than his predecessor, though I don’t think that would be too difficult for him. We continue to probe Mr Bradshaw for signs of his views on docking, as opposed to the views of his civil servants.

I fear, though, that the pressure upon him from the RSPCA and the RCVS to ban docking will be intense. The Kennel Club is not acting as the counterweight which dog breeders would expect of it, and the only organisation currently campaigning for freedom of choice is the CDB, aided and abetted to some extent by the field sports bodies.

So we await this coming Wednesday with bated breath. Nothing is cast in stone about the Queens Speech. The list of commitments which the Government includes within the speech can change only hours beforehand, depending upon the ebb and flow of politics, so it may be that the Government’s business managers may not even know now whether an Animal Welfare Bill will be part of next year’s programme.

But even if it is, rest assured that there will be plenty of future opportunity for consultation. We will be calling on your support when the time comes.

Peter Squires

November 2003