Historians' Watch

The past and future of live animal exports

Since the Second World War, the British public has expressed fundamental shifts in their attitudes to the countryside and farming. Environmental issues such as the use of pesticides like DDT and the removal of hedgerows have caused concern. The implications of Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 and the introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy have been widely debated. Diseases such as Foot and Mouth Disease, BSE or mad cow disease and bovine tuberculosis have also attracted public attention. The export of live animals is another such complex issue; primarily due to the perceived ethics of the trade and concern for the animals involved.

Cattle and sheep being loaded onto ships at the Albert Docks in the 1950s. The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading, P FS PH2/K24/6.

Recently, fresh light has been shed on live animal exports by the plight of cattle stranded at sea on ships because of suspected outbreaks of bluetongue disease. This led to fodder shortages and animals being kept in cramped conditions for a prolonged period of time. Brexit has given renewed impetus to ongoing campaigns calling for a ban on live animal exports on welfare grounds. The issue is now high on the political agenda, with plans to ban the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter published by the Environment Secretary. It is, therefore, an opportune moment to consider the long history of live animal exports which has reflected and informed trends in modern farming practices and international trade, ethical debates about animal rights and welfare, and Britain’s changing relationship with Europe.

In the nineteenth century, native cattle breeds like the Hereford and Aberdeen Angus were exported from Britain to overseas colonies, to improve the breeding stock by crossing bulls with indigenous breeds to improve the confirmation of the animals. Hence the country gained the reputation as the ‘stock yard of the world’. Conversely Britain also imported Continental breeds such as Holstein-Friesian and Charolais cattle. After the Second World War, exports from Britain were increasingly for fattening and slaughter, rather than breeding. The best known export was young surplus bull calves intended for veal production, due to the expansion of the dairy sector based on commercial breeds such as Holstein-Friesians. Deliberately selected for their milking ability, these breeds were not suitable for beef production. Whilst some female calves were retained as herd replacements, male calves were a surplus by-product with little value for farmers. With limited demand for veal from British consumers, many calves which otherwise would have been disposed of at birth were exported to be fattened by specialist veal producers on the Continent. The reasons behind the export of live sheep are perhaps less obvious, as refrigerated meat has been imported from New Zealand since the late nineteenth century. Live lambs have been exported from Britain due to a large trade surplus, seasonal imbalances, and demand for fresh meat and particular carcass types in some countries and regions.

Live animal exports have been a subject of tension between animal rights and welfare groups, the public and the farming community since the late nineteenth century. Alun Howkins (1947-2018), a founding editor of History Workshop Journal, and Linda Merricks explored changing attitudes towards live animal exports, drawing extensively on material from the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex which aims to record the everyday lives and opinions of ordinary people. They found that campaigns against the transport of live animals had their origins in the late nineteenth century, corresponding with the growth of the antivivisection movement and environmental activism in Britain. Eight animal protection groups had been established in Britain by 1900 and another eight by 1944. While only one more group was formed before 1960, there were a further fourteen by the end of the 1980s. This suggests that interest in animal protection peaked in the late nineteenth century and then, again, after 1960 with the advent of modern animal rights. In the nineteenth century, concern about animal welfare in Britain was associated with religious-inspired moral reform which raised awareness of animal cruelty, whereas from the 1960s it reflected growing public consciousness of the relationship between humans and animals. Interest in animal welfare and animal rights has since become more central to public and political debate in Britain, but it is important to distinguish between the two. Animal welfare permits the use of animals by humans as long as they are provided with adequate food, shelter, veterinary treatment and other needs to prevent suffering, whereas animal rights advocates share the belief that it is morally wrong to exploit animals.

Cattle and sheep being loaded onto ships at the Albert Docks in the 1950s. Photographer: C. Topham. The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading, P FW PH1/54/10/2/14.

In parallel with the growth of animal protection groups, the trade in live animals from Britain grew substantially during the 1960s and 1970s. Live sheep exports ranged between 85-411,000 during the 1960s to the 1980s, beef and veal which included live exports increased from about 65,000 in the early 1970s to about 200,000 in the 1980s, while live pig exports rose dramatically, from 30-60,000 in the 1970s to a peak of 619,000 in 1982. Attempts to ban exports – led by organisations such as Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) – received widespread media coverage. In response to public pressure, the House of Commons approved a motion for the temporary ban on the export of sheep in July 1973, which was later extended to cattle and pigs. The Report of the Committee on the Export of Animals for Slaughter in 1974 made recommendations about the need for veterinary supervision, the feeding and watering of livestock, journey limits and re-imports and slaughter methods. Criticisms of slaughtering practices and conditions were investigated by the committee, which visited abattoirs in Britain and on the Continent for comparison. Whilst the slaughtering of animals within sight of another was prohibited in Britain, it was not in European countries to which live animals were exported. Meanwhile, the practice of stunning before slaughter was not widely used in small provincial abattoirs in France, although the French government was bringing slaughtering under closer veterinary supervision.

The report found that the majority of the written and oral evidence was in favour of abolishing the trade, but it concluded that welfare grounds were not sufficient to justify ending the export of live animals for slaughter. Nonetheless, the report welcomed a move towards carcass meat exports. This was something that the earlier Balfour Committee, established in 1957 on similar grounds, had deemed desirable but concluded was not feasible due to the lack of suitable transport, difficulties reaching distant markets and consumer reluctance towards chilled and frozen meat. Clearly the government view in 1957 and 1974 was that economic reasons continued to outweigh animal welfare concerns. MPs did not want to impose a ban which would financially affect British farmers due to the loss of markets for their animals, and the trade resumed in 1975.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, live animal exports increased again to about 2 million animals each year, peaking in 1992 when a total of around 400,000 cattle, 300,000 pigs and nearly 1.5 million sheep were exported directly for slaughter. Howkins and Merricks suggested that Parliament’s reluctance to act previously encouraged a more militant attitude amongst those campaigning against the trade. Media attention focused on incidents such as the ‘lamb war’ of 1990, when French farmers burned a consignment of live lambs because imports competed with small-scale domestic producers. Following the creation of the European Single Market in January 1993, regulations governing live animal exports were relaxed, allowing farm animals to be transported for up to 24 hours without rest, feed or water. Consequently, renewed campaigns were launched to end the live export trade. The CIWF and RSPCA lobbied the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the European Commission, while encouraging consumer pressure on ferry companies and airlines. Several ferry companies introduced self-imposed bans and restrictions as a result of public pressure.

Readers’ letters to the Farmers Weekly in 1994 supported the decision of ferry companies. One reader wrote of having ‘watched with horror the BBC Nine O’Clock News showing cattle suffering intolerable cruelty while being shipped abroad.’ Others condemned the conditions abroad, in which calves were reared for veal and the inhumane slaughter methods used in some abattoirs. Another letter argued that the live export trade should be banned except for breeding stock, with carcasses exported chilled or frozen, asking ‘If New Zealand can ship frozen lamb, why can’t we?’ Several farmers expressed the desire to have their livestock slaughtered at an abattoir of their choice, preferably close to their farm. ‘It is heartening to learn of a farmer who chooses the welfare of his livestock before his profits’, wrote a reader in response. In contrast the agricultural spokesmen of the Federation of Small Businesses argued that the ferry companies’ ban would cost British agriculture around £200m in lost trade. Animal activists and the National Farmers Union (NFU) were seemingly united in their criticism of the use of veal crates (which were banned in Britain in 1990 but continued in the European Union (EU) until 2007), of Eastern European lorries and of conditions in abattoirs in Spain and Greece. This led to growing anti-European sentiment.

Despite protests, exports continued using local airports like Humberside in North Lincolnshire, and smaller ports such as Shoreham in Sussex and Brightlingsea in Essex. In the ‘Battle of Brightlingsea’ in 1995, animal rights protesters and local residents sought to prevent the export of livestock through the town. Campaign groups seeking to ban live animal exports were effective in mobilising urban middle class opinion both as consumers and protestors, although their focus remained on animal welfare, rather than animal rights. Those who objected described the practice as inhumane, with some professing that they had converted to vegetarianism due to distressing photographs of animals being transported in trucks. Very few respondents had personal experience of the trade and many perceived farmers as driven by economic considerations. Indeed, widespread support for the anti-export campaign was arguably reflective of wider criticisms of modern farming. The farming lobby, meanwhile, argued that urban views of the countryside were sentimental and romantic.

The reasons for not banning live animal exports are more complex than appear at first sight, revealing the views of different interest groups: consumers who questioned the ethics of the trade and farmers’ arguments about the economics and efficiency of production and the logistics of consumption. In 2016, 483,859 sheep, 42,515 cattle, and 10,615 pigs were exported to the EU; primarily for slaughter or production, with a much smaller number for breeding purposes. Campaigners still protest at the ports of Ramsgate and Dover in Kent. Despite the long history of activist calls for the trade to be abolished, live animals continue to be exported for fattening and slaughter, although this has largely stopped following Brexit.

In light of recent developments, it is arguably time to re-consider the issue. Technological advances in the dairy industry, such as the use of sexed semen, has reduced the number of bull calves born and more dairy-beef calves are being reared in Britain. In response to consumer demands, dairy producers and supermarkets are prioritising animal health and welfare, as demonstrated by the drive to end the killing of bull calves at birth. The British government’s stated intention to ban the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter, as part of a new policy framework which promotes animal health and welfare, represents a high-profile political move away from EU agricultural policy. If we are about to see the end of live animal exports, it is the result of changing economic and political circumstances and the success of longstanding campaigns that have highlighted the animal rights and welfare issues associated with the trade.

One Comment

  1. Seems blindingly obvious to me. We have been receiving refrigerated lamb, for example , from New Zealand for decades

    This practice simply needs to be extended worldwide. On the hook rather than on the hoof seems economically sound too, Far more refrigerated carcasses can occupy the same space as that occupied by the same number of animals alive.

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