An everyday tale of suffering in the pen

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One particularly pushy pig pressed her face against the iron gate, squishing her snout under the bottom bar. Was she rooting around for truffles? Not likely. Not at Banbury market.

The sow's need was more basic than that. The yellow, muck-ridden puddle just beyond the pen was the only drinking water in sight. The other pigs had to satisfy their thirst by licking the concrete. In the adjacent unloading bay, a broken drain was proving a dangerous obstacle. Just as one large sow struggled to free its trapped trotter, another prepared to repeat the fall. The cacophony of terrified screams from inside the barn did not suggest that things were likely to get any better.

The handlers, for their part, were anxious not to put a foot wrong. Following the publication of the Animal Aid report that morning along with a story in the local newspaper about their cruel behaviour, they needed some good press.

To make the point, one handler even unloaded a lorry-full of pigs with his arms in the air, as if to say: "Look! No hands." Or sticks, boots, or other inducements. But the sudden, piercing shrieks of pain let out by some pigs as they were ejected from their vehicle hinted at another story.

Some ramps were steep; few had straw. The sheep fared worse than the pigs in this department, however. They spilled out of their lorries like peanuts from a packet. Some transporters had three levels, and the angle of the ramp leading from the top deck was almost 45 degrees. The sheep skidded to the ground, only returning to the upright as they hit the buffer formed by the queue below.

It was to be a long day for all the animals. The first lorries rattled into the yard at 6.30am and the auction eventually got underway at 9am. Some pigs were audibly distressed. Others took a more passive line, slumped awkwardly in their crates, apparently admitting defeat.

Banbury Stockyard, set in the rural outskirts of the Oxfordshire town of Banbury and reputedly the largest livestock market in Europe, has been subject to undercover inspections by a local Animal Aid volunteer for the past six months.

Barbara, not the volunteer's real name, said of the market yesterday: "Animals are regarded as food commodities, not as sentient beings." She is particularly concerned about the stress suffered by the pigs. "Pigs get very, very stressed," she said. "They travel extremely badly. Last time I went on a Thursday I witnessed two pigs arrive dead."

Yesterday's animals were, at least, alive but whether or not they were well was harder to tell. Just last week, Richard Ivory, from Hemel Hempstead, was fined over pounds 4,500 by Banbury magistrates after pleading guilty to three charges of selling unfit animals. He had sent two pigs who were suffering from abscesses and arthritis and another which was in pain following an injury.