Debate gathering pace about immigration of both people and dogs

01 January 2015, at 12:00am

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

THERE has been much debate in the last couple of years concerning immigration to the UK from Eastern and Central Europe.

On the one hand, the argument goes that these are people required to fill labour shortages (both skilled and unskilled) in our economy and that they are essential to help drive economic growth and recovery.

The reverse argument is that they are taking jobs from local people and putting undue strain on social infrastructure such as the health service and the education system.

Not so generous a system

At the very worst, some argue that many immigrants are coming here purely to “sponge” off our generous social security system. Though how generous that system is in reality could be called into question by the seemingly non-stop rise in the number of food banks in the UK and the increasing numbers of people who appear to be using them.

Clearly, immigration is a very emotive issue and the facts are often clouded by a few well-chosen anecdotes that “confirm” the views of whichever political party happens to be speaking on the subject.

The rise in the fortunes of UKIP can be directly attributed to the fears of many UK citizens that the other political parties are not taking their fears concerning immigration seriously.

That, and the fact that Nigel Farage frequently comes across as everyone’s genial uncle who loves nothing better than to stand the first round in the pub and make entertaining conversation. In modern politics, presentation is everything and substance a very poor second.

Well, hard on the heels of human immigration from mainland Europe appears to be canine immigration. Almost unbelievably, between 2011 and 2013 the number of puppies entering the UK from Lithuania rose by 780% and from Hungary by 663%. Canine imports from Poland and Romania are also on the increase.

Now I am certain that the UK government never intended or anticipated that this would be the outcome when it made changes to the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) back in 2012. To be honest, who did?

But history should have told us that wherever there is a pound to be made, there will be someone willing to do what is necessary to make it. That appears to be the case in this instance as commercial dealers seek to exploit the seemingly insatiable demand in the UK for pedigree puppies or defined crossbreeds.

One could argue that these canine immigrants are needed to make up for the undersupply of suitable dogs from within our own country.

After all, it is estimated that about 700,000 new dogs are required each year just to replace those which die from the overall native population of some 7 million.

The Assured Breeders Scheme and occasional hobby breeders cannot possibly meet that demand and so it would appear sensible to import them from elsewhere.

Imports, however, particularly in the sort of numbers currently occurring, are not without problems.

There is no way of knowing under what conditions these animals are being bred, plus there are the potential disease threats, in particular rabies and Echinococcus multilocularis. This is of particular concern if health certification is not up to the required standard.

Animal Health Inspectors from the City of London, which includes Heathrow airport, report that illegal imports have rocketed since 2012 and inaccurate certification is especially prevalent amongst consignments from Poland and Romania.

Outlawing puppy farms

Coincidentally, though perhaps it is no coincidence, there has been much effort put into outlawing and shunning commercial “puppy farms” here in the UK and Ireland with prospective owners being warned not to purchase from such places particularly if “mum” is not available for inspection.

Whilst the theory and intentions behind this are good and honourable, it is surely counterproductive if we are merely exporting the animal welfare issues to EU member states where animal welfare and the policing of such may not be given such high priority as in this country.

Puppies may be reared under even worse conditions and who knows what happens to the bitches when they become unproductive and therefore uneconomic.

Combine that with the long journeys required to get to the UK and the increased disease risk, and the unintended consequences may be far worse than the suffering we were originally trying to prevent back here. It also seems somewhat incongruous that whilst puppy imports increase, there remain tens of thousands of dogs in rehoming centres across the UK.

Whilst some of these can legitimately be considered unsuitable for rehoming other than to dedicated and knowledgeable owners, there are certainly many that would make excellent pets and surely satisfy the desire for a faithful companion and loyal friend.

Lots of these are mongrels, of course, and I can remember the days when most people had mongrels and the pedigree pet was much more the preserve of the relatively wealthy few.

I suppose the ever-increasing demand for pedigrees and ever more obscure crossbreeds (some of which change hands for eye-watering sums of money) tells its own story about the increasing inequality in this country as we struggle to emerge from the present economic crisis.

Perhaps we have got our priorities wrong after all. Perhaps we should be encouraging commercial breeders here in the UK by encouraging carefully regulated “puppy farms” where welfare standards are high (in the circumstances) and disease control is a prime requisite.

The veterinary profession could be intimately involved and help ensure that both animals and the buying public were well served by the “industry”. There would then be little need to import such large numbers of puppies from abroad and everyone would be a winner. In the meantime, it is likely that puppy imports will continue to rise and at some point Echinococcus multilocularis is bound to arrive.

We may be having a debate in 30 years’ time over the culling of urban foxes that is not dissimilar to the current one concerning badgers.

How much better to take action now to prevent this foreseeable problem from occurring rather than simply watch from the sidelines?

I’m not exactly sure what needs to happen to bring about a change of heart but I guess one could do worse than whisper it, mentioning the word immigration, into Nigel Farage’s ear over a pint or two.

He will never get my vote but his matey rhetoric on the subject would probably stir up some interest amongst those politicians who might.