This is a complicated area. It is hard to arrive at a clear cut conclusion. The major reason for this is because it is difficult to describe with complete certainty a cat as a “feral cat”. An outside cat may be someone’s domestic cat. He may be a stray cat, betwixt-and-between domestic and feral. This is a grey area.
The law concerning domestic cats (someone’s pet) is obviously different to the law concerning true feral cats, which are wild animals. Once again the trouble here is that there are different degrees of wildness in feral cats. This, alone, is almost enough to state with some certainty that you cannot or should not attempt shoot feral cats in the UK.
Looking at the law, the overarching law regarding animal welfare in the UK is the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (the Act). In the introduction to the Act there is a description of the phrase “protected animal”. The act protects certain animals.
The act does not protect an animal living in a wild state. However, the Act does protect animals under the control of man even when that control is temporary. People engaged in trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs of feral cats have to be regarded as being in temporary control, in my opinion, of the feral cats under their care. These cats should have an ear tipped to identify them. At a distance you would not see this.
Once again you can see the complications. However, for a true feral cat there is no protection under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in the UK. No other act regarding animal welfare protects true, 100% feral cats living in the wild.
The question then is whether anyone can shoot a true feral cat. For the relevant information you have to look under “hunting and shooting wildlife” on government websites. At regular intervals on these websites you will see warnings that “you can be fined or jailed for hunting illegally or causing unnecessary suffering to an animal”. This is an important caveat.
You will also need a certificate to use a shotgun, rifle or other firearm. You don’t need a certificate for air rifles up to a certain strength and the same goes for air pistols. You can’t use crossbows or explosives.
True feral cats are not listed under “quarry species and shooting seasons” on the British Association for Shooting and Conservation website. I presume therefore you cannot treat true feral cats as game in the shooting season.
Can you therefore treat feral cats as pests and nuisances and justify shooting them under this criteria?
The government states that you can control pests yourself using a licensed firearm but once again they warn that you can be fined or imprisoned if you cause unnecessary harm to any animal. The government recommends that you get professional advice if you don’t know which animals you are permitted to trap or kill. They recommend the British Pest Control Association which lists cats as potential pests. They also include feral cats. They make a very important point about pest control of feral cats and it is this:
They say that if you experience problems with any feral cats or you are unsure, you are advised to contact your local RSPCA shelter. This is because most pest controllers will not deal with cats. This, in effect, is strongly advising that the RSPCA should trap these cats and treat them humanely.
That last sentence once again strongly infers that even pest controllers will not deal with feral cats because of the reasons mentioned earlier on in this article namely that you don’t know if a cat is feral, stray or domestic. And if a pest control business inadvertently kills someone’s domestic cat thinking that they are killing a feral cat than that operator would be exposed to a criminal charge under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Criminal Damage Act 1971.
I believe that I’ve drilled down by a process of elimination, to the conclusion that although a person can, with the proper licenses, shoot a feral cat under certain strict conditions concerning pest control, it would be unwise to do so because that person would be taking the risk, the very real risk, of committing a serious criminal offence for which they could be imprisoned for up to 51 weeks and/or fined up to £20,000.
Sarah Hartwell says that “landowners” (most commonly farmers I’ll presume) can shoot feral cats when on their land. I’d suggest that this falls under pest control but this does not absolve farmers from mistakingly killing someone’s pet cat which could lead to a criminal prosecution.