MPs and rural campaigners are concerned that the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill may be "hijacked" by animal rights extremists to attack farming.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which is only six clauses long, recognises that animals are sentient beings.

It also sees the creation of a body to oversee ministers’ efforts to take account of animals' welfare needs when drawing up and implementing policy.

The bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday (January 18).

Much of the controversy to date has centred on the Bill’s proposed creation of the ‘Animal Sentience Committee’, which will report to parliament as to whether, in the process of making and formulating policy, all due regard had been paid to the welfare of animals as sentient beings.

The government has described the committee as an accountability mechanism - but it remains unclear who will sit on the committee, as does the extent and details of its powers and functions.

MPs, peers and rural campaigners have warned that without sufficient safeguards, the committee risks being ‘hijacked’ by animal rights extremists who could use it to advance their agendas and launch attacks against farming, pest control and the rural way of life.

In July last year, at a meeting of the Defra select committee, Dr Penny Hawkins of the RSPCA spoke positively about the involvement of PETA activists on the committee arguing that it should not a ‘closed shop’.

During its initial passage through the House of Lords, numerous amendments to the Bill were put down by peers in an attempt to protect the composition of the committee to only include genuine experts on animal welfare.

Every amendment was rejected by the government, however recognition of sentience was extended to include cephalopods and decapod crustacea, in addition to vertebrates.

Speaking on Tuesday in the Commons, Conservative MP Richard Drax said: “This is a bad Bill, an unnecessary Bill, and a Trojan horse for those who have no understanding and sadly in some cases despise the countryside and all that goes on in it.

“I and many others fear that those with different agendas, often partisan and politically motivated, will hijack this committee and its role to attack activities like shooting and fishing.”

His concerns were echoed by two other Conservative MPs.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said he was concerned that the Bill could give animal rights’ groups “another weapon” to “damage both government and those who live and work with animals”.

Jonathan Djanogly, a former Conservative minister, said he saw the Bill as “fraught with problems” and could be used against minority religious practices, as well as enabling more judicial review challenges against game shooting.

James Legge, director of public affairs at the Countryside Alliance said: “We fully support legal recognition of the sentience of animals, however, we share the widespread concerns that have been expressed at each stage of the Bill in the House of Lords and by MPs in the House of Commons in relation to the proposed Animal Sentience Committee this Bill would create.

“The Bill lacks the necessary detail to ensure the Sentience Committee cannot be hijacked or extend its reach beyond its legally defined role.

"There must be safeguards in place to ensure that the committee cannot be weaponized and used to attack proper wildlife management, farming or the economic well-being and way of life of our rural communities."

There was no vote and the Bill now goes to a committee for more detailed scrutiny. The committee stage is due to conclude by February 10.