Illegal puppy traders here are making as much as £11.7m annually shipping dogs into Great Britain, according to a new report, with one single transporter estimated to be ‘trafficking’ in excess of 6,200 pups each year.
The 'Puppy Dog Fortunes' report into the trade by the USPCA also states that, if all other known traffickers here are even operating at just one quarter of this scale, it would still mean a total of 37,200 puppies are being trafficked annually, with a potential value of £69.75m.
In Northern Ireland there are at least 45 licensed breeders who have a total of 1,700 breeding bitches, working out at an average of 40 breeding bitches per registered breeder. However, the USPCA said it is aware of some breeders who have in excess of 100.
The report highlights how, in the case of one local legal breeding business, the firm had £1.5m in assets, with more than £1m categorised as cash in the bank or at hand, as of January 2020. This breeder was operating on an industrial scale, with 695 breeding bitches - but only an average of 10 employees - meaning each member of staff was responsible for 69 bitches.
"Breeding on this industrial scale calls into question the provision of minimum welfare standards and whether the dogs and pups are being kept in conditions which meet the five freedoms as outlined in the Animal Welfare Act 2011 and in particular the minimum standards required by the 2013 Dog Breeding Establishments’ regulations with regard behaviour, socialisation and enrichment," the report said.
The five freedoms in the Animal Welfare Act are: freedom from hunger and thirst. By ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigour; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress.
The report found that the pandemic has "fanned the flames" on the demand for pups, with average prices reaching as much as £2,000.
To tackle these problems, the report calls for enhanced regulation, better enforcement action from authorities and the closing of loopholes currently being exploited by those involved in the trade.
Brendan Mullan, USPCA chief executive, said Northern Ireland has a "grave issue" at hand which is causing "unthinkable suffering to the thousands of dogs who are only seen as commodities by those engaged in this cruel trade, both legally and illegally".
“The illegal side of the puppy trade in Northern Ireland represents a sophisticated, inter-connected web of criminal activity. There is significant need for targeted and focused enforcement in respect of all groups and individuals involved – the illegal breeders, transporters and dealers," he said.
“This is a cruel money-making industry that demonstrates no regard for the welfare of animals. This report aims to shine a much-needed light on the issue, as the first step in tackling it involves recognition of the scale and seriousness of the problem. We fear that this industry is teetering dangerously on the edge of being uncontrollable in the absence of more effective regulation and enforcement."
Alliance MLA John Blair, chair of Stormont's all-party group on animal welfare, added: “Northern Ireland is lagging behind the other jurisdictions on these islands in terms of crucial animal welfare legislation and there is an urgent need to crack down on illegal puppy farms.
"I welcome the USPCA's report, Puppy Dog Fortunes, on illegal puppy trade. The report provides vital insight into the operations of illegal breeders and is a positive step towards tackling puppy farming and other animal abuses.”