Animals and birds under increasing threat from plastic waste

Water birds and marine animals particularly at risk, according to new RSPCA findings

Plastic bottles and other rubbish washed up on a beach

Wildlife and pets are under increasing threat from plastic waste and litter, according to new data from the RSPCA, which shows the number of incidents of animals hurt by plastic litter has risen sharply on previous years.

Plastic litter led to 579 cases of damage to wildlife or pets that were reported to the animal charity in England and Wales in 2018, up from 473 in 2015. That rise came against a background of falling damage to animals from other forms of litter, down from 4,968 reported incidents in 2015 to 4,579 last year.

Water birds and marine animals were particularly at risk, with 28 incidents involving seals hurt by plastic litter in 2018, compared with five in 2015. Among birds, swans were among the worst affected, followed by geese and gulls.

Plastic has become an increasing focus of concern, as it does not break down in the natural environment and can continue to cause problems in waterways for years. The government has increased charges on disposable plastic bags to discourage their overuse, and businesses from supermarkets to consumer goods companies are changing their practices to use less plastic packaging in response to public concerns.

But the biggest source of damage to wildlife from litter comes from angling, according to the RSPCA’s findings, with discarded equipment such as lines, nets and hooks causing more than 3,200 of last year’s reports.

“[Fishing] lines can wrap around necks, causing deep wounds in flesh and cutting off the blood supply,” said a spokeswoman for the charity. “Hooks can pierce beaks or feet, become embedded in skin or get caught in the bird’s throat, and weights can be swallowed causing internal injuries and blockages.”

The RSPCA frequently sees cases where mammals and birds have died from infections caused by discarded fish hooks, from strangulation caused by fishing lines, or from wounds where plastic has cut into creatures’ bodies.

The spokeswoman said: “We would strongly urge those who enjoy fishing to be extra cautious when packing up to make sure no litter is left behind. Most anglers are very responsible when disposing of their litter, but it only takes one careless person to endanger the life of an animal.”

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