Ministers are being urged to exercise extreme care when considering opposition to live animal exports.
Animal welfare campaigners are demanding rule changes and even an outright ban on live exports as part of the Government’s post-Brexit policy making.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove raised the hopes of campaigners during his Conservative Party address earlier this month in which he said leaving the European Union’s single market presented an opportunity to “restrict” live exports.
However the current suggestions that had been made by campaigners to protect animals in transit have been labelled “highly questionable” by the chief executive of the National Sheep Association, Phil Stocker.
Mr Stocker said he feared the opposition to live exports could cause unintended and unnecessary consequences for no welfare gain.
“I don’t dispute the motive of campaigning organisations in wanting to ensure the best animal welfare standards for livestock in transit, but some of their ideas for how to achieve this are highly questionable. The answer would be to find a way of ensuring consistent enforcement of regulations right across the EU, but I accept this is difficult.”
Mr Stocker continued: “With Brexit seen as an opportunity to part company with EU regulations, several different calls have been made and messages have become inconsistent.
“Suggestions to limit all journey times to eight hours do not consider the infrastructure needed to support this. There simply aren’t enough abattoirs or supply chains to allow it and if this resulted in a farmer only having one market to sell to, getting a competitive price is unlikely.
“Banning live exports from the UK is another call being made, but this would stop what can be a very direct trade from the South East of England to Northern Europe with journey times that can be less than some internal UK trips.
“It has even been suggested we ban live animals travelling across water, something which causes no welfare problems.
“Exporters of breeding animals comply with strict regulations and we should aim for all animals to be treated in this way. The emphasis should be on a joint effort from Governments, farming organisations and welfare campaigners to ensure EU regulations are properly adhered to. If we can’t rely on other EU states to do this effectively then exploring the potential of UK assured routes to ensure regulatory compliance is something I would welcome.”
It remains to be seen what proposals the Government will put forward on live exports post-Brexit, but during his speech at the Tory conference in Manchester, Mr Gove made a clear reference to the issue being part of his own thinking when considering new British policy.
The Minister said: “Outside the European Union’s single market, we can improve animal welfare, supporting more humane methods of farming and restricting the live export of animals.
“Isn’t that a cause in which we can all believe? The opportunities to show leadership in respect for animal life, in restoring health to our oceans and in farming sustainably, are now all the greater because we’ve decided to be outside the European Union.”
Reacting to that speech, Keith Taylor, Green MEP for Kent, said: “Greens support a full ban on cruel and inhumane live animal transportation but, until that happens, any promise to restrict the trade should be welcomed.
“However, during his speech, Gove highlighted only his belief that we can restrict live exports as we leave the EU. Crucially, he stopped short of actually promising he would and failed to outline any hint of a policy to put said ‘restrictions’ in place.
“It must be noted that to ‘restrict’ is not to ban.”
Mr Taylor added: “The Environment Secretary failed to address the difficulties in implementing further restrictions both as an independent member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and during the Brexit transition period in which his Government is proposing continued Single Market membership. Both the WTO and the EU Single Market enshrine the free movement of goods - including, perversely, live animals - as a central principle.
“Should Gove put an actual policy forward that successfully navigates these difficulties and restricts live animal exports then Greens would be the first to welcome it.”
The UK currently exports 35-40 per cent of the sheepmeat it produces annually, with imports at a similar volume. The trade is driven by seasonality and consumers’ preference for particular cuts, as well as global economics.
According to the NSA, the vast majority of UK sheepmeat exports are transported as carcases or meat cuts.