Of all the tools in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s populist arsenal, animals have been a particular favourite. During his stint as foreign secretary, he wrote diatribes against the “cretinous slaughter” of endangered pangolins by poachers; at last year’s Conservative Party conference he boasted that his government would use green reforms to “build back beaver” after the pandemic. The UK ensured that nature protection was on the agenda at Cop26 last November, and ahead of talks in Kenya this week Zac Goldsmith, the UK’s international environment minister, announced that the country would take a “leading role” in calling for countries to halt and reverse global biodiversity loss.
Yet while the UK government is putting effort into securing an ambitious biodiversity deal internationally, there are signs that political will is weakening at home, says Katie White of the World Wildlife Fund. “The UK government must not backslide on proposals to end subsidies for damaging and polluting agricultural practices and ensure that farmers are paid fairly to deliver 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 policies play well with British voters: in 2017 polling by the RSPCA showed that 81 per cent of respondents believed animal welfare laws should be strengthened after the UK had left the EU. Johnson’s government has capitalised on this support by banning live animal exports, glue traps to catch vermin, and the buying and selling of ivory, among other reforms. “The way we treat animals reflects our values and the kind of people we are,” George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, insisted in the government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare last year. “We will continue to raise the bar, and we intend to take the rest of the world with us.”
Introducing such legislation has not been without resistance from within Tory ranks, however. When animal sentience was reinstated in UK law after Brexit, some Conservative peers resisted; enhancing the status of animals in Nazi Germany “contributed to the Holocaust”, Benjamin Mancroft even argued during a debate in the House of Lords. “Anyone wishing to act in a vexatious manner could use its good intentions to stray into unintended areas and clog up government business,” warned another peer, Greville Howard, when a committee was created to advise the government on animal sentience matters. “Animal rights is an extreme doctrine,” added Mancroft, suggesting that activists could use the new law to undermine any policies involving animal use – from farming to science.
Such concerns about government overreach have only grown in influence since the international focus on the UK’s green agenda was lifted after Cop26. Those misguidedly arguing that the cost-of-living crisis necessitates a reduction in support for energy and green farming reforms have been given new oxygen by the war in Ukraine. Food production should take priority over rewilding initiatives, claims the farming lobby, and in the government’s recent food strategy, commitments to protect animal welfare were watered down.
Meanwhile, as the fallout from partygate has escalated, the Prime Minister has become increasingly dependent on the support of a small faction of right-wing free marketeers, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities. Rees-Mogg defends the right to hunt, wear fur and to more generally exercise “personal choice” free from government control.
Animal-linked policies have consequently taken a hit. A flagship bill to protect animal welfare abroad – including bans on the import of fur, foie gras and hunting trophies from threatened species – was scrapped in March. “[The bill was dropped] around 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 these policies being undermined by his debt to a small number of colleagues in his inner circle.”
When it comes to British wildlife, progress is similarly stalled. The government has less than eight years to meet its legally binding target to halt the decline of biodiversity, yet a nature bill was missing from 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 reducing pesticide use has still not been published, and government statistics published last week show tree planting is falling worryingly short of the 30,000 hectares a year by 2034 target (at just 13,800 new hectares for 2021-22). Nature-friendly mixed woodlands are essential to wildlife recovery and climate change action, says Matt Williams of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a UK non-profit, but planting rates are “flatlining”.
A lack of parliamentary time due to the war in Ukraine was the official reason given for the about-turn 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. Key commitments don’t need new legislation, “they just need the government to focus on getting the job done”. Instead of setting a new legally binding target to improve protected sites, for example, it is “wasting time” on reviewing the process for deciding which places should be protected in the first place.
The government is defensive on all these fronts. It is “categorically untrue” it is failing to prioritise nature and biodiversity, a spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, says. Action is on its way “in due course”, on everything from banning horticultural peat use to reintroducing beavers, they claim.
The fate of other species may seem less pressing at a time when living costs are spiralling and carbon emissions continue to increase globally. Yet in the government’s own words: “The way we treat animals reflects our values and the kind of people we are.”
Causes that the Prime Minister has championed – from the banning of trophy hunting (which he condemned as a “barbaric practice” in a 2019 tweet), to support for industrious beavers – now lie languishing. The promise to “build back beaver” is dammed up, and the final threads of the Prime Minister’s integrity with it.
[See also: Does anyone care about Cop27?]