As the race for Number 10 well and truly gets going, the key issues of the day will be discussed at length. The economy, the health service, immigration, unemployment, among others, are going to be the subjects on which voters deliberate and decide. They will be the subjects that get the most media time, and rightly so.
But elections can be decided by narrow margins - this year has the potential to be one of those. And when you get into an 'every vote counts' scenario, then prospective MPs need to be clear about their views on a wider range of policies, because they are the ones that could end up making the difference. And in this nation of animal lovers, this is when they realise that in an election, animals matter.
At the League Against Cruel Sports, our key focus means that we know a lot about what goes on in the world of animal 'sport', much of it unsavoury, much of it hidden. Our own election manifesto therefore focuses on five issues that are key to reducing the suffering of animals, and we believe that many voters will share our concerns. Briefly, here's what we think is important:
1. Hunting. The Hunting Act is working well, and repealing it would be a backward step and a disaster for a caring nation. We believe it can become more effective with some small improvements, including prohibiting the use of dogs below ground; inserting a 'recklessness' provision to ensure the killing of wild mammals during a 'trail' hunt cannot be passed off as an accident; and increasing the punishments available to the courts for those breaking the law to bring the Act into line with other animal welfare legislation..
2. Snares. Around 1.7m animals are caught by snares each year, many die a painful death, and around two thirds are unintended victims, ranging from hares and badgers to cats and dogs. The UK is one of only five EU countries where they are still legal. We believe snares are unnecessary, indiscriminate and inhumane and should be banned.
3. Shooting. Shooting for sport is on the rise, with around 50 million pheasants and partridges released into the countryside each year. The vast majority of these birds are factory-farmed before release or bred specifically to be shot; most are not 'for the pot' but just left to rot in mass graves. We are calling for an inquiry into these commercial shoots, focussing on the animal welfare, economic and ecological impacts surrounding them.
4. Dog Fighting. Despite being illegal, dog fighting is on the increase. This includes a range of 'fights' from organised, big-money bouts through to dog-owners meeting in the park for a 'rumble'. What they have in common is the cruelty inflicted on the dogs throughout their lives. The League is calling for action from the next Government to toughen the penalties for dog fighting and to give more support to police forces, local authorities and schools to help tackle this growing problem.
5. Greyhound Racing. Almost ten years ago, media reports exposed the dreadful lives and premature deaths suffered by racing dogs - many still remember the 'mass graves' that were discovered. It was clear that cruelty, drug abuse, injury, neglect and killing were rife in greyhound racing - yet a decade on, what has been done to change that? We're a nation of dog lovers but we are allowing an industry to control the fate of thousands of dogs without proper regulation or monitoring. We want a series of measures brought in to remedy the many serious issues.
Those are our key policies, though of course there are many other issues about which we're concerned. If you're as concerned as we are, then please make your voice heard by asking your local election candidates for their views on these issues. We've made it easy for people to do this, via the League Against Cruel Sports Manifesto webpage. So far, over 15,000 emails have been sent, and 535 candidates have responded. You can check your postcode to see if your candidates have responded - and if they haven't I recommend you chase them.
Last year, a poll of MPs showed that the badger cull was the fifth most common policy about which they were contacted. Animals matter. An annual poll shows that eight out of ten people think that fox hunting should remain illegal (that's people from both town and country). Animals matter. Nearly eight out of ten think snares should be banned. Just two out of ten think it is acceptable to shoot live animals for sport. Almost everyone in the country is opposed to dog fighting, yet it's on the increase. Greyhounds continue to suffer for a sport that is regulated by the people who run it. That shouldn't continue, because animals matter.
I don't believe that any of the issues I've raised above will be opposed by many, other than perhaps those who take part in the activities. None of them will cost much to implement. Yet the laws, policies and alterations that need to be in place need a government willing to act. That government, of whatever colour, needs to know that people care about cruelty to animals. They need to know that Animals Matter.