Figures from the Home Office show a rise of 317,200 procedures between 2011 and 2012, up to a total of 4.11 million. This follows a 2 per cent increase the previous year and continues an upward trend since 2000.
Speaking at a briefing in London on 16 July, Judy MacArthur Clark, head of the Home Office’s Animals in Science Regulation Unit, put the rise largely down to the breeding of genetically modified mice.
Among genetically altered animals, breeding alone counts as a procedure. Without their inclusion, the total number of procedures decreased by 2 per cent, said Dr MacArthur Clark.
This is the first time the number of procedures involving genetically modified animals was greater than the number performed on normal animals, Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals 2012 shows. GM animals are used to model diseases, an increasing practice in developing treatments for a wide range of conditions including motor neurone disease, cancer and immune disorders.
But the rise comes on the back of a government promise, set out in the coalition agreement, to reduce the use of animals in scientific research. Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said it was “stunned to see such a dramatic rise”.
Dr MacArthur Clark said efforts were under way to reduce the use of animals in UK research.
All researchers are required to take into account the so-called “3Rs” – measure to replace, reduce and refine animal use – when devising their research, with “all reasonable steps” taken to minimise the number of animals used and their suffering.
She highlighted one example where replacing shellfish toxicity testing with an animal-free alternative had reduced the number of mice used in this area from 7,670 in 2009 to 42 in 2012.
However an increase in the amount of research in the UK life sciences meant the overall number of animals used was increasing, she added.
Dominic Wells, professor in translational medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, told the briefing that to some extent the figures reflected the UK being “victims of our own success”.
“We are working on more problems, more efficiently, with a better rate of production of results, and this has inevitably led to the increased use of animals,” he explained.
Overall, the figures show that the use of mice was up 14 per cent, while the use of sheep rose 14 per cent and the number of procedures on goats rose by 746 per cent, although this was from a low base and due to a single veterinary study.
There were falls in the number of experiments in fish (down 11 per cent), amphibians (down 14 per cent), rabbits (down 10 per cent) and pigs (down 22 per cent).
The statistics also showed that the number of non-human primates used - which does not include great apes, on which experimenting is banned - increased by 22 per cent.
The rise is likely a correction following a significant drop between 2010 and 2011, said Dr MacArthur Clark, adding that the number remains lower than the majority of years in the previous decade.
The Home Office plans to publish a cross-government delivery plan later this autumn that will describe the government’s efforts to deliver on its pledge to cut animal testing.
In line with a 2010 EU directive which the UK had to transpose into UK law in 2012, the government is also devising a method to chart the severity of animal suffering alongside numbers being used, with a view to including it in the statistics in 2014.
Meanwhile Peta highlighted a recent Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which showed that public opposition to the use of animals in medical testing has grown steadily over the past six years, with more than one in three people now identifying themselves as “objectors” to the use of animals in medical research.