The Animal Welfare Act challenged over powers in firework incidents

  • The Animal Welfare Act does not offer protection for animals that suffer owing to fireworks, experts have agreed – as further calls are made for a “comprehensive review” of regulations.

    Redwings hosted a round-table discussion with attendees including World Horse Welfare, the RSPCA, vets, police and a barrister, to discuss the act in relation to times fireworks are believed to have inadvertently led to the injury or death of an animal. 

    The discussion was “in response to statements made consistently by ministers at Westminster, which suggest that the act is a legislative tool that could be used in such scenarios”. 

    The Animal Welfare Act states it is an offence to cause “any unnecessary suffering to a captive or domestic animal” – but there is no specific mention of fireworks.

    British Horse Society figures show there were 1,468 firework incidents involving horses  between 1 November 2010 and 19 March 2024, and a Redwings spokesperson said the charity is not aware of any cases where the Animal Welfare Act has been used to address the “sometimes tragic impacts on animals”. 

    Some of the difficulties in applying the act were highlighted. For example, identifying who is responsible for incidents – the person who lit the firework, the landowner or the display organiser. It was agreed that there are challenges establishing a burden of proof that the firework had “unequivocally been the cause” of any suffering a horse has experienced – and the fact that setting off fireworks in line with regulations is a legal activity. 

    It was agreed that revision of regulations is needed, with suggestions including introducing firework licensing, creating codes of practice and implementing control zones such as those in Scotland (news, 2 November 2023). 

    “The Animal Welfare Act is a very good piece of legislation, but it wasn’t written to punish people for doing something the law currently endorses, such as holding a fireworks display in their back garden. The focus needs to be on better regulation,” said Nic de Brauwere, Redwings’ head of welfare and behaviour.

    World Horse Welfare deputy chief executive Tony Tyler told H&H the act has “never been the appropriate mechanism to deal with the distress and injuries caused to horses by fireworks”.

    “We are disappointed that the Government points to it as such,” he said, adding that “strengthening legislation is long overdue”. 

    RSPCA scientific and policy manager Mark Kennedy told H&H “a review of regulations will protect animals from harm”. 

    “We understand many people enjoy fireworks, but we can’t hide the fact that many animals find them deeply distressing and some end up injured or even lose their lives,” he said.

    “We have campaigned for years urging the Government to revise fireworks regulations – ensuring they can be enjoyed responsibly, while better protecting animals. This round-table discussion showed we are not alone in wanting this.”

    Redwings published a report from the discussion, which has been shared with the Government’s Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), which deals with firework legislation.

    “We hope this report will mean that ministers will no longer hide behind the illusion that the Animal Welfare Act offers protection or recourse for those whose pets are caused to suffer because of fireworks,” said Redwings campaigns and policy manager Helen Whitelegg.

    H&H contacted OPSS for comment and a spokesperson said that “due to the upcoming election and parliament being dissolved, we may not be able to confirm anything on this moving forward”. 

    Redwings asked that anyone concerned about the impact of fireworks share the report with their parliamentary candidates and ask that they support calls for a review.

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