A new action plan aimed at improving animal welfare enforcement will see the maximum jail sentence for animal welfare offences in the North increase to five years.

This new plan, which also aims to protect animals from neglect or abuse was unveiled by Northern Ireland's Minister for Agriculture, Michelle McIIveen.

The plan sets out 68 recommendations that will be brought in, which were made in the Review of the Implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act (NI) 2011.

It will enable the enforcement bodies surrounding the welfare of animals to work together to ensure the recommendations are implemented, according to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Minister McIIveen confirmed that a number of the recommendations in the action plan have already been implemented.

For example, legislation has been amended to substantially increase the maximum penalties available to the courts for the most serious animal welfare offences to five years imprisonment.

“In addition, serious animal welfare offences have been added to the Unduly Lenient Sentencing Scheme.

"This allows the Director of Public Prosecutions to refer sentences for animal welfare offences, tried in the Crown Court, to the Court of Appeal if he considers them to be unduly lenient," she said.

Meanwhile, DAERA inspectors have also secured access to conviction data, which will help with animal welfare investigations, the Minister said.

These are all important steps in ensuring that the welfare needs of animals are met, Minister McIIveen also said.

“Another important recommendation that I am pleased to say is already completed is the establishment of a single animal welfare presence on the nidirect website.

This provides information on buying and caring for animals, and is a single source of information on animal welfare enforcement.

“It helps members of public to understand who to contact if they are concerned about the welfare of an animal,” she said.

Recent cases of animal welfare offences in Northern Ireland

Two farmers from Co. Armagh were jailed following convictions for a range of offences surrounding the welfare of animals.

The farmers were charged with causing unnecessary suffering as well as a variety of other offences.

Both farmers were ordered to serve a total of five months’ imprisonment on different charges as well as a number of fines, while they were also disqualified from keeping animals for life.