Lambs to the slaughter

Spring brings those delightful scenes of lambs dancing around their mothers on Romney Marsh or other green pastures of Kent. But remember – the average male lamb has just six or seven months of skipping around before slaughter, with October being the peak killing month.

However, the supply for the British market goes on all through the year, with the February 2021 tally standing at 766,000 carcasses. Some are also exported live: in 2019, 31,000 live animals were exported from the UK. In December 2020, Environment Secretary George Eustice announced that such live exports will be banned by the end of this year.

Better animal welfare standards?

This ban was not possible under the EU because, using the treaty agreement on free movement of goods, any enterprise that found itself out of pocket because of animal welfare restrictions could bring the matter before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Now post-Brexit, the UK can bring in better animal welfare standards.

Over recent decades, there has been growing awareness of the cruelty of transporting live animals over long distances. In 1969, the Council of Europe issued a convention on Animals in Transit. In 1997, an EU Protocol on Animal Protection was appended to the EU treaty, defining animals as “sentient beings” and stating that member countries have to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”.

But this is not strong enough, as “pay full regard” is not easily actionable in law, and the “free movement of goods” principle could trump this at the ECJ.

What Article 13 of the EU actually says is: “In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”

The sovereignty of slaughter

This allows different member states to enact different laws. The matter of the exact means of slaughter is religiously sensitive, as electric stunning at slaughter is the method endorsed by animal welfare experts, and in fact practised in most modern slaughterhouses, but this is opposed by the strictest orthodoxies of halal and kosher, which dictate that a still-conscious beast must be cut with a knife in the jugular vein while being blessed.

Some countries, such as Denmark, have outlawed these orthodox practices. In the UK, for the halal market, worth £2.8 billion per annum, up to 90% of halal slaughterhouses use pre-stunning combined with halal cutting and blessing.

Some 3.4 million live animals are exported from the EU annually, mostly going East or to North Africa, where lamb is in demand; this is both because of Eid rites and a lamb-based food culture.

In 2015, there was judgement in a German Court that stopped the transporting of a consignment of live animals on a journey to Kazakhstan of 7000km. The judgement was under the EU Council Regulation of 2005 that had envisaged veterinary supervision of the welfare of animals in transport.

As in many other economic sectors, the EU now has well-defined regulations: the 2017 Guide to Good Practice has 17 technical fact sheets. But the struggle is to get the practice aligned to the promise, especially in the countries to the east and south of the EU.

There used to be appalling mistreatment of live animals after long journeys from UK, waiting in full sun to board the ship at Bari, Italy, for slaughter in Greece or Albania.

Local incidents

At Kent ports, there have also been incidents. Live animals used to be exported from Ramsgate onboard the MS Joline; but in 2012, there was widespread outcry when 40 sheep died after the floor of their transit lorry collapsed. When the case finally went to Court in 2014 the judge imposed a £19k fine on the livestock export company. The BBC later reported that the fine was £5000.

Thanet Council banned such operations from the port, but three companies contested this ban, claiming damages of £1.5m, as the ban coincided with the Muslim festival of Eid, when many Muslims buy live lambs for sacrifice. The companies won their case, with the judge saying the ban “had breached a fundamental element of the rules governing free trade in the EU” (that free movement of goods principle). Thanet Council had to pay damages to the companies.

The doughty MS Joline, a flat-bottomed tanker, actually unsuitable for rough Channel waves, was then moved to Dover, where it was still in operation in 2019, when a report states there are two routes of live animal export from UK to the Continent: either the 20 hour journey, including the Channel crossing on the MS Joline from Dover; or the 90 hours via Scotland and Ireland, then cross-Channel to Cherbourg.

Under DEFRA guidance of the 2007 UK laws that followed the 2005 EU regulations, authorisation for local journeys of up to 65km was obtainable by farmers, while Journeys of up to eight hours required more specific conditions of the type of vehicle, the certification of the driver, and contingency plans for emergencies.

I know how I feel after an eight hour flight packed in “cattle” class seating. Lambs are even more tightly packed in a vehicle and given just 20 x 0.30 sq. m. each, though the regulations are specific about enough ventilation and watering times. The eight hour period includes time spent waiting to board the Ro-Ro ferry, but not watering time.

Can we rely on the UK government to upgrade laws about live animal transport? In a 2017 House of Commons debate about whether to incorporate EU Treaty clause 13 into UK law, the motion was defeated on the grounds that free movement of goods was more important than animal welfare.

The farmers’ lobby is powerful. Lamb exports are 90,000 tonnes, so it is hard to discern how much of that is live, panting in overcrowded vehicles or falling on top of each other on the MS Joline on the choppy Channel waves.

The February 2021 “lamb kill” of 766,000 was down by 8% on the previous year. Lamb consumption is reducing in the UK, both because of the rise in the number of vegetarians and vegans and because of evidence that this is the red meat that most harms the heart; a finding that is hard for those addicted to the British Sunday roast!

If you are still a red meat eater, the best you can do is read the supermarket labels. Try to buy either packets with the Red Tractor label or with prominent labels about organic or grass-fed, as at least those will not have been reared in the most intensive conditions.

To avoid the cruelties of live animal transport, buy local, such as shown this list of Kent meat suppliers.

Meanwhile, unless live animal exports are banned completely, some of us want to know exactly what are the contingency plans in Kent for animals stuck for hours in Channel-bound traffic?

Newsflash: during the days when the huge ship Ever Given was jammed in the Suez recently, 136,000 live animals, exported from the EU (Romania), were stuck in the ships that were waiting.