Courts have been urged to take tougher action over animal cruelty.
Just 28 jail sentences have been handed down by Northern Ireland's courts over animal cruelty offences in recent years, while over the same period thousands of breaches of animal welfare laws were detected by councils.
Stormont's Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) handles welfare complaints regarding farm animals, while local councils carry out site visits relating to non-farmed animals – in other words, domestic pets.
Latest available figures from 2020 show that DAERA carried out 63 inspections relating to farmed animal welfare following complaints over the course of the year and detected 25 breaches of animal welfare legislation. Since 2016, the department has carried out 558 inspections and detected 102 breaches of the law.
Councils, meanwhile, received 4,363 complaints in 2020 about non-farmed animal welfare, carried out 6,107 site visits and detected 4,181 breaches of animal welfare legislation.
Since 2016, councils received 25,100 of these complaints, carried out 42,834 inspections and detected 23,327 animal welfare legislation breaches.
From 2016 to 2020, Department of Justice figures reveal just 28 custodial sentences handed down in Northern Ireland relating to animal welfare.
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said there is a clear discrepancy between the number of incidents where people have breached the Welfare of Animals Act and the number of custodial sentences handed out.
"While nobody would expect every breach to result in a custodial sentence, in 2020 there were 4,181 breaches of the Act, with only seven jail sentences handed out,” she said.
“The lack of custodial sentences being issued sends a clear message about how seriously our justice system takes animal abuse. We have seen cases in recent years where people have abused and neglected animals in the most abhorrent way and still escaped prison. We cannot allow animals to endure horrendous ordeals, with the perpetrator getting nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
“If we are ever going to lower the thousands of incidents of animal abuse being recorded each year then we need to take this issue seriously. People need to realise that if they are found guilty of neglecting or abusing an animal then they will face the consequences. We have tough sentencing guidelines in place in the North, but we need to see these utilised by the judiciary against anyone convicted of abusing animals to send a clear message that it won’t be tolerated.
"If we see tough sentences being handed out alongside an all-island animal cruelty register, I believe we have the potential to seriously reduce the number of incidents we are seeing each year.”
Judges are bound by sentencing guidelines and must take into account mitigating circumstances, such as early guilty pleas, co-operation with police and remorse, as well as aggravating factors.
DAERA has been contacted for comment.
The news comes after it emerged that the creation of a register of people convicted of animal cruelty offences has moved a step closer.
For years, animal welfare charities and other stakeholders have been calling for a register of those found to have abused an animal to be set up - like there is for sex offenders - in order to prevent them from owning animals.
Back in 2016, Belfast City Council passed a motion calling for the creation of such a register, however movement on the issue has only happened in the last year.
In answer to an Assembly question, DAERA Minister Edwin Poots said: “Officials have also been reviewing the effectiveness and impact of similar types of registers already operating elsewhere. I have requested that my officials further these efforts and develop proposals on potential next steps. I expect to be in a position to consider a way forward with respect to a register early in the New Year.”