A MILD-MANNERED lady of my acquaintance recently shocked me. We were chatting on the street corner when someone passed by, towed by a brace of poodles. She remarked: “There are far too many dogs.”

When I asked what she meant, she mentioned the amount of food and resources they eat up, the fact that most UK dogs get better health care than the majority of human beings on our unequal planet. The implication behind her comment: we need to drastically restrict dog ownership.

Before the dog-loving lobby releases a pack of peckish Dobermans and Rottweilers, let me set on record that I disagree with her. Owning a pet – or being owned by one – has to be considered a basic human right. Loneliness is a barely acknowledged epidemic in our divided society and pets give a huge amount of solace, not to mention sheer fun.

Her comment did, however, make me wonder about the contradictions of our attitudes to animals. After all, we like to think of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers.

According to the recently published State of Nature 2019 report, populations of some of the best loved UK wildlife have fallen by an average of 60% since 1970. Never mind dogicide (to coin a word) our country is guilty of a disastrous, on-going animalocide.

Iconic British species like hedgehogs, hares and bats, many birds such as the willow tit and the turtle dove, as well as numerous insects are being eased out of existence by mankind.

Worse, the losses to all animals, plants and marine life are mounting remorselessly, despite a few success stories in protecting individual species. 41% of species have decreased in numbers, while just 26% have increased.

Most disturbing of all, a quarter of UK mammals and nearly half of the birds examined in the survey are facing a significant risk of extinction.

If you add plants, insects and fungi to the mix, one in seven of the 8,400 UK species are at risk of being completely lost. Since 1500, 133 species have vanished forever. Each one represents a unique miracle of evolution we have annihilated.

Nor are there any easy answers. The causes of the animalocide are various: the intensification of farming, fertiliser pollution, excessive manure and plastic, the razing of natural habitats for houses, the climate crisis and invasive alien species.

According to the last The State of Nature report in 2016, the UK was “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”. In the three years since then, nothing has improved.

The real problem is our sense of priorities. The government, local authorities and businesses almost always put economic factors and the making of money for shareholders and farmers first.

In that sense, it is our market-driven way of life that ignores consistently the rights of any species other than our own. Instead of sustained action, we get slick messaging. And that is not good enough.

In reality, Government funding for wildlife and nature has fallen by 42% since 2009. According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the UK will fail in almost all its own officially set nature targets.

So much for wild animals. What of the UK’s record with the creatures we have direct control over, pets and livestock.

Overall, I think we do prove ourselves a nation of animal lovers when it comes to our pets. Domestic cats (which kill at least 27 million wild birds a year according to the RSPB), dogs, hamsters, and all our other furry or not so furry friends tend to live pampered existences that would astonish people starving in less affluent areas of the world.

Our treatment of animals reared as food is far less benign.

From battery hens to pigs and cows confined to vast sheds before being butchered, we show no mercy if the price is right. And right means as cheap as possible with the highest possible profits for producer and retailer.

In the end we are all responsible for turning this problem around.

My favourite British proverb – and we can be a very wise nation indeed – teaches: “A touch of nature makes all things kind.” It is time we matched that sentiment with urgent change.