The stories used to be dismissed by governments and legislators as 'isolated instances', but since the publication of a report last year there is no getting away from the reality summed up in the careful phrases of Brussels civil servants: 'Long-distance transport in over-stocked vehicles, combined with dehydration and starvation, results in poor welfare and often in high mortality.'

That is the European Commission's conclusion on the movement of live animals, which are carried hundreds of miles before ending up on the tables of European consumers. The number of cases illustrating cruelty and neglect in this trade is disturbing. In June 1993, for example, 38 pregnant cows were transported on a ferry from the Netherlands. On arrival at Harwich, 20 were dead - thought to have suffocated because of inadequate ventilation.

Two weeks ago, the animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming and the actress Joanna Lumley produced documentary evidence in a new video For a Few Pennies More. Shocked viewers saw a series of atrocities. For instance, a bull, exhausted and lame after a 40-hour journey, is hauled up by a rope round his neck, dropped from a height which paralyses him and then left to die in freezing temperatures on a Romanian dock. Another scene showed how a tired and dehydrated pig is kicked and dragged screaming into a French slaughterhouse where electric- shock tongs are used to force her into the killing line.

The crazy thing about all this cruelty is that it could be easily prevented. Animals raised for meat could be taken to the nearest slaughterhouse, killed, then exported as carcasses. Critics of the live export trade have long been proposing a European journey limit of eight hours for animals destined for slaughter. This would put paid to much of the live trade: a lorry-load of sheep from Scotland which turned up in Spain two days later would clearly be breaking the law. The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly for such a limit both in 1990 and 1993.

The obstacles are Europe's Star Chamber, the EC Council of Ministers and five countries, one of which, given its reputation as a nation of animal lovers, is somewhat surprising - Britain.

Since the advent of the single European market in 1993, border checks across the EU have ceased, to encourage trade. As animals are regarded as 'agricultural products', in exactly the same way as a consignment of turnips, any attempts to regulate their journey times or conditions of travel are being interpreted as 'a restraint on trade' and, therefore, illegal.

However, some agriculture ministers are against the live animal trade and would be prepared to find a framework for introducing a journey limit. Opponents of such a move are France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and the UK. On the other side, Germany is keen to introduce an eight-hour limit while Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark are prepared to agree to a 12- hour limit.

Even Spain, notorious for its slaughterhouse conditions, has indicated that it may support a limit.

So where do we fit in? Despite the fact that British government spokespersons issue regular statements emphasising how we are 'leading the way in animal welfare in Europe', the Minister of Agriculture, Gillian Shephard, refuses to support a journey limit, dismissing it as 'unenforceable and not practical'. Under the EU's voting system, Britain's support would make the difference to allow the measure to be passed.

Mrs Shephard seeks to justify Britain's position on the grounds that current laws should merely be effectively enforced. This is something of a bad joke. In theory, the current legal journey limit is 24 hours. But with no border checks, and trust put in transporters untrained in animal welfare, anything from indifference to downright cruelty goes.

There is something called the European Veterinary Inspectorate. It contains only 23 vets for the entire EU, who by their own admission have made no spot checks of animals in transport and have no money to do so. And it may well be that the horror of European journeys for live animals is just a minor reflection of what goes on when animals are exported to non- EU countries.

The puzzle for anyone who cares about animal welfare is: why trade in live animals at all? The answer is money. Farmers who raise meat and then export it are assured of hand-outs under the EU's subsidy scheme; and live animals are more marketable than carcasses. Animal transporters benefit because they can buy animals wherever they are cheap and sell where they are not.

One past president of the British Veterinary Association, Francis Anthony, recently calculated that sheep exported to Britain from Poland, where they are purchased at pounds 2 a head, produce 'a pounds 6,000 profit on a 300-sheep truck after transport costs'.

For the meat wholesaler, live exports are a neat way of making money. The French, for example, prefer French lamb, and British or Irish lamb can be sold legitimately as such if it has been 'finished' or fattened in France. However, much 'French' lamb from live exports may never have seen a blade of grass since leaving our shores.

On Tuesday 28 June, Compassion in World Farming is organising a mass lobby of Parliament with the aim of shaming the Government into supporting the European countries pushing for a journey limit.

It is asking concerned people to write to Mrs Shephard urging her to stop blocking progress. And, as a long-term measure, it is demanding that the Treaty of Rome should be amended to class animals as 'sentient animals' not agricultural 'products'. Already more than a million people have signed a petition supporting this move.

If the Government fails to back the journey limit, it will be a demonstration of how it is prepared to sacrifice farm animals to the gospel of free trade. In which case, let us never again hear how it is leading the way in European animal welfare.

(Photograph omitted)

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