THERE has been a mixed response from farming groups to Government plans for legislative changes in key areas covering animal welfare alongside focused actions in the Environment Bill to protect nature.

The proposals in the Action Plan for Animal Welfare cover five key areas, including recognition of sentience and the consideration of animal welfare in policy-making and trade negotiations, along with enhanced protection for livestock, pets, and wild animals.

NFU president Minette Batters said: “British farmers are proud to have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world and it is clear the Government wants to be a global leader in this area. However, we want to see the same energy and leadership that is being proposed for protecting endangered species and wildlife crime to be applied to our asks in equivalence in trade.

“I have serious concerns about the Government’s intention to raise the bar at home, without any certainty that the same standards will be applied to imports. There are still many practices allowed in countries we are currently negotiating with that are banned here, on welfare grounds."

“For example, it is not uncommon to see journey times for live animals in Australia exceed 24 hours without access to feed or water. In comparison, the Government has recently consulted on reducing domestic journey times in the UK to eight hours.

She said that it is also important to recognise that two sectors the Government has singled out – poultry and pigs – have some of the highest engagement levels in farm assurance schemes, meaning they are managed and audited against robust animal welfare standards.

She said: “Just over a quarter of eggs sold in retail last year were from enriched cages. If this production system were to be banned in this country then there is every prospect that the demand would simply be fulfilled by importing eggs from countries with lower standards.

“If the Government is to raise the welfare bar here, it must do so for food imports. It would simply be hypocritical to do otherwise. We cannot have a situation where British farmers adhere to some of the highest standards in the world, only to be undercut by imports that barely meet the lowest rung on the ladder."

“We are also pleased to see the commitment that ministers should be held accountable to Parliament when making policy decisions around animal sentience. This will provide a high level of scrutiny and we look forward to engaging with Defra on this important issue.”

Chief executive of the National Sheep Association (NSA) Phil Stocker said: “There were both welcome and unwelcome intentions outlined within the Queen's Speech and, as is often the case, the devil will be in the detail as these Bills get developed.

"We are enthusiastic about being a global leader in health and welfare (and environmental) standards, but these have to be based on evidence and practicality, and it will not advance welfare of animals if these standards aren’t a requirement for food imports to the UK."

He said that the NSA is still highly concerned over the proposals outlined in the Government’s recent consultation on journey times and welfare in transport and that an outright ban on live exports for slaughter is not necessary.

He said: "We believe there are more creative and intelligent ways to ensure good welfare outcomes and that there are cases where moving animals short distances across the English Channel makes sense.”

He said: "Many of the UK’s sheep farmers are already farming in a regenerative farming manner, and are doing a lot to work in harmony with nature, producing sustainable and high quality products that needs to be rewarded accordingly.”

CLA president Mark Bridgeman said that they welcomed the Government’s recognition of the need to modernise the planning system, but reforms must apply as much to the countryside as they do urban environments.

He said: “For too long, the countryside has been treated like a museum, held back by an outdated system that has frustrated economic growth.

"Rural poverty will only be eased and opportunity only created if we allow landowners to invest in their communities. We regularly hear of farmers wanting to convert farm buildings into new modern offices, or build more homes for local people, only to be held back by an antiquated planning system.

“If this system is simplified, twinned with other measures such as fulfilling their pledge to spend £5bn on the roll-out of gigabit capable broadband, then the vast potential of the rural economy might finally be unleashed.”