When it comes to animal welfare, one of the headline prospects for 2023 is the UK Government’s promise to resolve a longstanding issue of popular concern: live animal exports for slaughter or fattening abroad. “I cannot believe that this barbaric trade is still going on,” wrote former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2018.
A year later, banning live animal exports appeared in his party’s manifesto commitment. “They are jammed together in the dark. They are terrified… They slip and slide in their own excrement as the boats buck in the swell. They travel for more than 100 hours in conditions of such extreme discomfort that campaigners have been protesting for decades. The animals know they are going to die – and they are going to die far from home,” Mr Johnson wrote. It's a chilling description. And one that is true.
Pitiful eyes of suffering animals
Live animal exports very much hit the headlines during the mid-1990s when the major ferry companies refused to carry calves, sheep and other animals destined for horrendously long journeys abroad for slaughter or fattening. It started a nationwide scramble by exporters to find airports and seaports willing to facilitate the continuation of the trade.
It meant that a trade that hitherto had been out of sight, out of mind, was now trundling through community streets. People could hear and smell the calves and sheep packed into lorries. They could sense their fear. They could see the pitiful eyes of suffering animals looking out from stark trucks.
It led people from all walks of life to come out in their thousands to say enough is enough. Iconic flashpoints happened in Brightlingsea, Shoreham, Coventry airport and other places where animals were being exported.
In those days, 500,000 calves a year were still being exported to veal crates, so narrow that the animals would spend a lifetime in darkness, unable to turn around. It was a system banned in Britain in 1990 but that persisted on the continent for another two decades.
Sheep and lambs were exported every year in their millions simply to be slaughtered at the journey’s end. It never made any sense, particularly when a thriving parallel trade in meat exports exists. If meat can be so freely exported in refrigerated lorries, why then continue the cruel and unnecessary practice of live exports? It made no sense then. And still doesn’t.
For many years, successive governments have hidden behind excuses about their hands being tied, blaming it on European treaties and EU obligations over free movement of goods. None of which has ever cut any ice with campaigners. But since Brexit, there really are no further excuses for not ending the trade. Thankfully, following decades of relentless protest, the trade has reduced to a trickle.
A major milestone involved taking the Scottish Government to court in 2020 over continued exports of young calves. The judicial review was masterminded by Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). The legal challenge was put forward by Dorothy Bain KC, who was later appointed Scotland’s Lord Advocate.
At the time, about 5,500 very young male calves discarded by dairy farmers each year were sent abroad, particularly to Spain and even north Africa, where they were fattened and slaughtered as beef or veal. Most were coming from Scotland. By law, journeys over eight hours are not permitted for unweaned calves unless, after nine hours of travel, they are given a one-hour break for rest, water and, “if necessary”, food.
The Scottish Government decided to defend a legal challenge by CIWF over its continued approval of long export journeys. The calves were being transported from Scotland to northern France through the port of Ramsgate for up to 23 hours without food – in CIWF’s view, in breach of the law on journey limits.
Baby calves should still be with their mothers where they can suckle often. However, taking them from the cow and sending them on journeys of 20 hours or more made proper care impossible. After spending six months defending its position, the Scottish Government did a complete volte face and conceded that the trade was illegal. It was a hugely important victory for animal welfare, cutting off a big part of the residual trade.
However, there is a real danger that live animal exports could grow again. Since Brexit, there have been few live animals exported to the European continent because of a lack of border inspection posts to ensure animals are disease-free before being allowed into the EU. Once proper border control arrangements are established, there will be little to stop the trade resuming.
Some 18 months ago, the UK Government introduced the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill which would ban live exports from Great Britain for fattening or slaughter. The Bill aims to address manifesto commitments on animal welfare. The Scottish Government supports the proposed ban. However, since November 2021, progress has stalled.
With so much of the year still ahead, the eyes of our self-proclaimed nation of animal lovers are firmly fixed on the UK Government to keep its promise. A ban on live animal exports this year would be a promise fulfilled. A resolution stuck to. A nightmare ended. And for the many who have raised their voices against a cruel and unnecessary trade that belongs firmly in the history books, a dream come true.
Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat; Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were; and his latest book, Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future.
He will be speaking at Toppings in Edinburgh on February 9. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf