French police are investigating the disappearance of five cargoes of British sheep which have not arrived at their declared destinations. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has discovered that they have been smuggled to sites in France for ritual slaughter tomorrow.
The Agriculture Ministry is preparing to take legal action if the exporters involved fail to prove their sheep have arrived at their declared destinations. A spokesman explained that it is possible exporters have shipped sheep to France for the Eid-el-Kebir festival.
''If they had put down that their sheep were going for ritual slaughter we would have to think very carefully about granting a licence,'' he said. In Britain the law governing religious slaughter is rigorously enforced.
Muslim and Jewish abattoirs are permitted to carry out the practice but it is well-monitored and a veterinary surgeon must attend. The law is similar in France, as there are European Union regulations to adhere to, but under pressure from 4 million Muslims the government grants temporary exemptions for specific sites across the country in an attempt to avoid the slaughter in streets and homes. In previous years, the French have imported British sheep because they are cheap and there is a shortage on French farms.
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. Exporters have to state a declared destination for the animals but those responsible for five of the lorries have so far failed to account for them. The deadline to satisfy the Ministry of Agriculture expires next week.
An RSPCA undercover team of investigators last week identified British sheep in four Muslim sites around Paris. They estimate that around 800 will be slaughtered at one site alone. As many as 5,000 British sheep could be involved in the practice condemned by the RSPCA as unnecessary and inhumane.
A member of the undercover team told the Independent that he saw up to 500 sheep with British ear tags being marketed specifically for the festival.
To mark the end of Ramadan, families from all over Paris will converge on makeshift sacrificial sites to take part in the slaughter. Sheep will have their throats cut by untrained slaughtermen who have been known to hack through the neck with bread knives.
The slaughter is expected to attract large numbers of French protesters. Among them will be Brigitte Bardot, who said last night she might be forced to emigrate as a result of the practice.