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Public urged to consider animals this Bonfire Night as rural communities turn on ‘haphazard’ fireworks

With Bonfire Night approaching, the Countryside Alliance is warning of the harm fireworks pose to pets, livestock, wildlife, and the wider environment. After receiving a number of emails from concerned members and supporters, the organisation has urged the public to show consideration to animals and to use common sense when planning to set off fireworks.

Studies have found that 80 percent of horses become anxious or very anxious during firework displays, which commonly leads to running. Petrified horses do not only pose a risk to themselves – they may accidentally hurt their handlers and bystanders when bolting.

Similarly, dogs often experience extreme discomfort and anxiety from fireworks, predominantly due to their hearing capacity being up to 60,000hz – three times the capacity of humans. This severe psychological distress produces similar responses in dogs to post-traumatic stress in humans, which can cause aggressiveness and contribute to health conditions. In certain instances, dogs have died suffering from fits and internal bleeding after firework displays.    

Even birds are harmed by fireworks. Many wild birds become disoriented and lost, causing them to crash into buildings, fall by the thousands into communities, or fly too far out to sea. Chickens often huddle together in their panic, which may cause them to smother one another to death. Geese show signs of significant physiological stress following fireworks, and nesting birds often abandon their nests in confusion. Furthermore, studies confirm that changes in bird behaviour persist long after the fireworks are gone.

Some communities are fighting back against irresponsible fireworks displays. In East Leake, Leicestershire, Nicola Housley successfully led the charge against fireworks announced to be held on bonfire night after a local football club began selling tickets to an unprecedented fireworks night at a sports ground, despite the venue being surrounded by fields with over forty horses, and near to fields with over four hundred horses.

The neighbouring land includes a riding school for children with special needs, an animal sanctuary, a livery yard, a stud farm, and numerous private premises with horses. Through Nicola, these groups expressed concern over their animals’ well-being and their inability to make alternative arrangements with such limited time before the event. They cautioned of the possible harm posed to pedestrians and other members of the community if, for example, a distressed horse runs through a fence and into a road during the fireworks display. After weeks of contention, an online petition and protest from the community, the organisers decided to cancel the fireworks display.

Sabina Roberts, spokeswoman for the Countryside Alliance, said: “This incident is neither isolated nor unavoidable; haphazard firework displays in rural areas recurringly disregard the welfare of animals and cause misery. Sensible and simple measures, such as consulting local communities well in advance of proposed displays and using low-noise fireworks, would make a tangible difference for animals. Ultimately, this is about using common sense”.

The past year alone saw numerous cases of horses being killed and injured due to firework displays.

One horse ran blindly into a fence, sustaining such serious injuries that it was euthanised to alleviate greater suffering. Another horse died after being unable to stand due to the distress caused by fireworks. In other cases, anxious horses severely injured themselves by crashing into objects and developed fatal intestinal conditions caused by stress, even when sedated during the firework displays. These incidents are no coincidence. Research suggests that horses are highly unpredictable, flight-wired animals shown to be reactive to loud noises and flashing lights, and so when exposed to fireworks, their innate fear reaction takes over.

Despite these evidenced cases of harm, there are limited legal recourses for animal owners. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 does criminalise causing unnecessary suffering to animals, but the bar to prove that the legal usage of fireworks directly causes this suffering is incredibly high. Consequently, animal welfare organisations have yet to see the Animal Welfare Act being used to prosecute an individual or organisation using fireworks legitimately. 

Besides scaring animals, fireworks may cause harm to the countryside in less conspicuous ways. The heavy metals in firework debris pollute waterways, which affect fish development. These hazardous materials are also consumed by animals, which can lead to the death of the animal or their offspring. Further, the embers and sparks that fall from fireworks can ignite wildfires, posing a widespread risk to rural communities.

To prepare for Bonfire Night, animal welfare organisations have offered advice to pet and equine owners on how to keep their animals calm during firework displays:

  • Horse-owners are encouraged to be with their horses during scheduled display times and keep to routines, leave stable lights and music on to lessen the effect of sudden flashes and noise, and ensure wherever their horses spend the night are safe and secure, including by checking for protruding nails in stables and broken rails, barbed wire, and objects that could injure the horse in fields.
  • Dog-owners should create a sense of familiarity by distracting their dogs with TV or music that the dog has heard before, behave as normal to send positive signals, reward calm behaviour with dog treats or playing, and keep their dogs at home during firework displays, even if their dogs don’t show visible signs of stress.
  • Organisers of firework displays should clearly advertise events to local communities and farms well in advance so they can prepare to settle their animals, direct displays away from known fields or buildings with livestock in them, and consider using low noise fireworks which create a visual effect but are quieter. This advice rings true for individuals planning to set off fireworks at their own premises. However, members of the public should consider attending organised events rather than creating their own displays, particularly if presiding in an area with known farms and livestock. 

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