The companies are caught between two powerful and highly effective lobbies. At Dover there are frequent pickets by animal rights demonstrators, and at nearby Ashford, Stena Sealink suffered a firebomb attack in June at its offices. Simultaneously, there are dire warnings from farmers about the effect on their industry of a total ban, with the possibility that lawsuits will ensue.
A spokesman for Stena Sealink, which has spent several months consulting on the issue and last week met the RSPCA, said: 'It is a very hard step to take to ban the carriage of what is perfectly legal and legitimate trade. It would be a massive step to take. On the other hand, we are under severe pressure from many of our customers who have seen animals carried on our ferries and complained.'
Galvanised by gory videos of the live animal trade put out by the RSPCA, several thousand people have written to the company this year.
Last week it took only a day for British Airways to act after the Daily Star published a story on Tuesday disclosing that live sheep were being carried by the airline between Perth and Singapore. After a hasty review, BA's group managing director, Robert Ayling, intervened to ban the carriage of live animals destined for slaughter.
P & O, which carries 60 per cent of the trade, worth a total of pounds 5m annually to the ferry companies, has said it will ban the transportation of live animals from 1 October unless the European Union agrees new rules governing the length of time they can be transported.
The Council of Ministers meets in the middle of next month but while the transport of animals is on the agenda, the RSPCA is not hopeful that a decision will be made on the length of time animals can be carried.
Previous stricter rules were scrapped in January 1993 at the creation of the single market, and wrangling within the EU means that there is only a temporary 24-hour restriction on carriage of animals, far too long for the animal welfare supporters.
Brittany Ferries has announced that from Monday it will stop carrying animals destined for immediate slaughter. Animal rights campaigners say this decision means little, because most of the animals are fattened up for days or weeks before slaughter.
A company spokesman refused to say whether any trade would be turned away as a result of the ban, but said that Brittany Ferries had 10 per cent of the total cross-Channel market for live animals.
Peter Davies, director general of the RSPCA, says: 'Our aim is to force the Government to accept the German proposal at the Council of Ministers that there should be an overall limit of eight hours for animals on the way to the abattoir.
'We want the ferry companies to join in to bring pressure on the Government.'
However, if the ferry companies succumb to the pressure they may face legal proceedings, as their action would be seen as a barrier to free trade. Gwilym Thomas, press officer for the Farmers' Union of Wales, said: 'A number of organisations including meat producers and hauliers are looking at the possibility of legal action.'
The trade is worth between pounds 15m and pounds 20m to Welsh farmers and Mr Thomas says that the RSPCA is aiming at the wrong target.
'We produce meat in the most humane conditions but are being made to pay for the sins of our European counterparts,' he said.
According to the Meat and Livestock Commission, the total trade is worth pounds 200m and involves about 2 million sheep and 400,000 calves - about 20 per cent of total meat exports. A spokesman said: 'It is a growing trade as our lamb exports, recognised world-wide for their quality, have been growing by 20 per cent annually over the past decade.'
Farmers are worried that the French want live animals because of differences in the way they cut and dress the meat. However, Dennis Knight, export sales manager of abattoir owners Canvin International, said: 'That is rubbish. There is spare capacity at many abattoirs and we already export a lot of meat on the hook to France.'
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