British sheep sent to horrific killing ground

Ritual slaughter: Undercover RSPCA inspectors witness cruel fate of animals ferried secretly ferried to France for a Muslim ceremony
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At first sight yesterday morning the small town of Goussainville was a picture of serenity. Two miles east of Charles de Gaulle airport on the outskirts of Paris, its residents were mowing lawns and tidying flower beds.

Just off the main road into the town an excited crowd watched a sheepdog trial. The spectacle was profoundly ironic - a hundred yards away at a site created on derelict land, about 1,000 sheep were herded into cramped pens awaiting slaughter. Hundreds of them were British.

Nine at a time they were dragged by their trussed legs to makeshift wooden cradles. Clearly in distress, they were thrown on to the crib. Their throats were slit, some by untrained slaughtermen with blunt knives. After being tipped onto the bloodied ground their bodies convulsed for minutes.

At the entrance, a placard advertised the vente de produits moutons fermiers but this was more than the sale of farm sheep. This was the Muslim festival of Aid-El-Kebir, the ritual slaughter of sheep at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, recalling the time when the prophet Ibrahim was preparing to sacrifice his son for the glory of Allah. The child was spared and sheep sacrificed in his place.

However, this was a makeshift site for the Muslim feast and according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, the slaughter was in breach of European regulations governing the ritual.

Accompanied by two undercover RSPCA inspectors the Independent found hundreds of British sheep which had been secretly ferried to France for Aid-El-Kebir. Red tags identified them as being from flocks across Britain.

The most recent shipment of British sheep travelled from Dover to Boulogne on 28 March. There were 24 lorries, containing 8,495 sheep, on board the Sea Road. The French are investigating the disappearance of five of these cargoes which have failed to arrive at their declared destinations.

The Ministry of Agriculture is expected to take legal action after the deadline for exporters to provide documentation to prove the sheep reached their destination expires this week.

An animal welfare campaign group, Protestors Animal Information Network, which seeks to end the live-export trade, claims most of the sheep are shipped to the Continent without the disinfection procedures and veterinary checks imposed by the EU. Whitehall sources have said ministers have been told current export certificates are illegal.

Yesterday hundreds of Muslim families carrying black dustbin liners, buckets and kitchen knives gathered at the site in Goussainville. Earlier in the week they purchased from the organiser of the festival one animal each, paying 1,500 francs, about pounds 200.

Clutching a ticket bearing the number of their animal, they queued at the gates to the pens. Both European law and Islamic doctrine set out detailed procedures for the sacrifice, known as dhabh. Trained slaughtermen must use sharp knives to quickly cut the skin and sever the windpipe and blood vessels. The meat is not halal if an animal is killed in the presence of another or if knives are sharpened before them.

According to the RSPCA inspectors, each rule was openly flouted at Goussainville. "They were being kept for hours on end in pens where all around them others were being killed which is distressing for them. The lack of bleating is indicative of suffering and resignation to their fate," he said. "As they were dragged to their deaths they were aware of what was going on around them. Some of the slaughterers were taking several attempts to cut the throat. It should be one clean cut."

From the killing area the sheep were dragged to hanging metal spikes where the carcasses were prepared for consumption. To facilitate the removal of the fleece, a pump, normally used to inflate a lilo, was inserted into a leg to fill the animal with air.

After skinning his sheep, using his hands to rip out the intestines, one man said: "We eat the mutton later after reciting verses from the Koran. We eat half and give the other half to Allah."

The RSPCA plansto use its video evidence to put pressure on the EU to enforce the regulations governing the ritual.