Neighbouring Portugal, which supplies almost half of the 1,500 bulls killed in Spanish corrida each year, has been stopped from exporting the animals because of a European export veto on its beef and cattle aimed at halting the spread of BSE.
Many Spanish bullrings believe they will not be able to open their gates when the season begins in April because they cannot afford the high prices being asked for the remaining domestically bred animals.
Spanish diplomats and bullring managers are lobbying the European Commission for an exemption to save the national sport on the grounds that the bulls will never be eaten by humans. But the Commission, fearing that the carcasses of bulls rendered after the fight could end up in the human food chain, insists that no exceptions will be made.
The unexpected ban has been welcomed by animal welfare campaigners who have been calling for years to end the Spanish sport. They want Spain to adopt Portuguese-style bullfights, in which the animals are not wounded or killed.
"It's ironic but pleasing that this BSE ban could improve animal welfare in Spain by reducing the number of bullfights this year," said David Bowles, head of the international department of the RSPCA.
Despite widespread international protest about the cruelty of the sport, Spain's corrida are still big tourist attractions and matadors are national celebrities.
There are about 400 bull-rings in Spain, ranging from huge arenas in Madrid and Barcelona with seats for 20,000 people to small town rings which seat about 1,500.
"I couldn't see an exemption being introduced for bulls," said a spokesman for Franz Fischler, EU Farming Commissioner. "We imposed a ban because they have BSE [in Portugal] and we were not satisfied that sufficient measures are being put in place."
Fighting bulls are chosen for their size, the length of their horns and imposing character. Animal welfare campaigners believe they suffer severe distress during the battle with the matador. Up to six bulls usually take part in a single spectacle. The corrida in Spain is stylised and has not changed significantly for hundreds of years.
After performing the initial passes with his cloak, the matador works as close to the horns as possible. He then stabs the banderillas, or darts, in the back of the bull's neck before killing it from a standstill position. After the kill the matador circles the bull and receives his applause. A successful matador can cut off the ear of a bull as a souvenir. If the audience believes he has been particularly brave he can claim both ears.
"Tradition shouldn't play any part in the arguments for and against bullfighting," said a spokesman for the Wildlife Agency, which campaigns to end cruel sports involving animals. "Bullfighting is a barbaric sport which should be ended now. The suffering is intolerable. By the time the bulls enter the ring they are terribly distressed. They meet a savage end after being tormented and severely injured."Reuse content