Exporting animals for slaughter faces a ban – but not in Scotland

Exporting animals for slaughter faces a ban – but not in Scotland

by Catherine McBride
article from Tuesday 8, December, 2020

WHILE ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS will no doubt be praising Brexit for George Eustice’s announcement of plans to ban live animal exports for slaughter and fattening, I wouldn’t open the Champagne just yet.  

What Mr Eustice has actually announced is an eight week consultation in England and Wales about the practice of live animal exports. The issue is the welfare of animals enduring long drives with the prospect of further transport by ship or air. No doubt there will be many farmers and farmers unions adding their voices to the consultation in favour of live exports even though they have just waged a major campaign against imports from countries that they claim have lower animal welfare standards. It will be interesting to see if the farmers’ unions are just as vigilant at opposing exports that involve low animal welfare as they were when opposing potential imports.  

However, farmers’ support for live animal exports would not be without merit. This has always been a tricky subject. While it is easy for metropolitan dwellers to complain about the long and overcrowded journeys that exported animals often take, for many farmers overseas sales are part of their business. If a farmer’s customers want to buy their animals live, then do we really have the right to stop farmers from supplying them? In many cases the farmer will have no idea what a purchaser intends to do with the animals they have bought. There will probably be at least one stock agent between the farmer and the eventual purchaser. But either way, surely in a free market this trade should be allowed?  

Also it is not just a question of whether the UK has the right to stop farmers selling live animals for export. The EU blocks its Member States from banning the export of live animals because this would breach the rules of the Single Market that guarantee the free movement of goods. While the RSPCA supports the ban it also believes this may also fall foul of WTO rules, as in all likelihood, there will still be live animals crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and under WTO rules you can’t trade products with one country and not with another. Perhaps we should add the caveat to any ban, that live animal exports are only allowed if the animals are able to walk across the border? At the moment this is, however, a moot point because Northern Ireland looks like it will be stuck with EU animal welfare regulations, including live animal exports, for as long as the Northern Ireland Protocol is in place. So Northern Irish animal welfare activists can definitely put the champagne back in the fridge.  

The SNP being against all things Brexit – even exploiting available benefits as that would serve to endorse it – there is, as yet, no similar proposal for any ban in Scotland, so the Malt can stay in the drinks cupboard.  

On a positive note, at least live animal exports have diminished and according to the RSPCA the number of live animals exported from the UK fell from 752,000 in 2000 to only 43,000 in 2016. Hopefully this decline will continue. But in case it doesn’t it might be worth considering why this practice takes place.   

It is hard to rationalise the idea that animals are transported for fattening. The UK’s lush green pastures are ideal for fattening sheep and cattle. Many other EU countries do not have such an ideal climate for keeping cattle and sheep in the field. However there are only nine million hectares of Farmland in the UK, so there is not space for ever expanding herds of animals.  

But this export trade is not limited to the EU. Often live animals are being driven right across the EU to Central Asia or the Middle East, or through Spain and onto Morocco. This trade will be predominately for countries that require Halal slaughter and possibly where refrigerated transport is limited and expensive. A live animal lasts for a lot longer unrefrigerated, than a slaughtered one.   

However, there is another reason for this live animal trade. Although the UK is a net importer of Beef, net trade figures hide a lot of two way trade. So while the UK imports prime cuts and minced beef from Ireland, it will be simultaneously exporting lessor cuts not eaten by the British as well as exporting male calves that dairy farms do not have the space to raise for beef. Dairies get rid of these calves as soon as possible so that most of their mother’s milk can be sold for human consumption.   

According to the House of Commons Briefing Paper, number 2721, published in May this year, over the last 25 years the number of dairy cows in the UK has dropped from 2.6 million in 1996, to 1.9 million in 2018, the number of dairy farms has dropped from 35.7 thousand in 1995, to only 12.2 thousand in 2019 but the average herd size has almost doubled from 75 in 1996 to 148 in 2018, and incredibly the yield per cow has almost doubled as well, increasing from just over 4,000 litres per cow in 1975, to almost 8,000 litres in 2018. So domestic milk production has increased by 12 per cent to 15,008m litres, despite the dramatic falls in the number of dairy farms and dairy cows.   

No doubt these startling increases in milk production are to do with dairy farms amalgamating, mechanizing and becoming more efficient by using: selective breeding for higher milk production; better feeds; continuous feed stations; and a high turnover of cows after three or four years to maximise milk production. But the immediate removal of male calves also helps. If these calves cannot be sold for veal in the EU, in all likelihood they will simply be shot (around 95,000 a year in the UK). So while compassionate people may believe they are improving the lives of animals by banning live exports, there is a chance they will simply be ending an animal’s life entirely.   

There is an alternative, however. While it would be great if all UK dairy farms could follow the practices of The Ethical Dairy, a Scottish dairy producing ice cream and cheese that allows calves to remain with their mothers, the best way UK metropolitan animal lovers can prevent live animal exports would be by buying UK bred rose veal. We can’t expect UK farmers to stop selling their animals to international buyers if we don’t buy their products ourselves. And if you can’t face the idea of eating veal (which is the equivalent of eating Lamb instead of Mutton), at least buy the organic milk. Organic farms also let the calves stay with their mothers for at least a month.   

But many animals in the UK will also have long and crowded journeys without ever leaving the country. There has been the massive consolidation of abattoirs in Britain, from 13,000 in 1938 to only 416 in 1999. According to the AHDB, by 2019 abattoir numbers in England had dropped to only 165 all red meat abattoirs, 103 pig abattoirs and 14 specialist pig abattoirs. The All Party Parliament Group report on the Future of Small Abattoirs states that there are now only 63 small abattoirs in the UK and that they operate on very tight margins. So there could be an unintended benefit from forcing all UK meat to be slaughtered in the UK: it would help these struggling abattoirs as well as ensuing that animals are slaughtered according to UK standards.   

The UK also has Halal Abattoirs if international customers require Halal meat. We just need to follow New Zealand’s example and establish a system of certified Halal slaughtered meat, if our export customers require this. It would only be sales to countries with limited refrigerated transport or storage that would miss out if live animal exports are banned.  

On balance, the ban could help revive the UK’s abattoirs, or at least slow their decline and prevent the journeys of UK animals to slaughterhouses becoming any longer.  While any loss to UK farmers from the banning of live export sales could be mitigated if animal welfare supporters insisted on only buying ethical or organic dairy products and UK rose veal. But I am guessing that the farmers’ unions will be looking for a government compensation remedy rather than a free market solution.   

Catherine McBride is an experienced economist, working in corporate governance, competition economics, global trade, financial regulation and public policy. Catherine gained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Sydney in the mid 80s, was a trader in equities, derivatives and commodities during the 90s and noughties, and following the EU referendum worked for the Financial Services Negotiation Forum, Legatum Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs, before becoming freelance.   

Photo of livestock in wooden boxes secured by nettings being shipped on the main deck cargo hold of a Jumbo Jet freighter aircraft by schusterbauer.com from Adobe Stock.  

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