Firm had death threats

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Phoenix Aviation,the air freight company which had leased the jet, was instrumental in re-starting the £200m trade in live animals for slaughter on the Continent following a voluntary ban by the major ferry companies in the autumn.

The trade was effectively killed on 5 November when the last big carrier involved, Brittany Ferries, pulled out after discovering "flagrant abuses" of an animal welfare code of conduct agreed with hauliers.

Exporters scrambled to set up alternative transport. Phoenix Aviation, an existing airfreight company, and the new MT Shipping attempted to circumvent the ban.

Phoenix first tried to operate from Bournemouth International Airport in mid-October, but was forced by local opposition to transfer to Coventry.

The company's first flight from Coventry's local authority-owned airport, in conjunction with a new animal exporter, CC Freight, was also problematic. Three trial flights in November were accompanied by Labour councillors to check on animal welfare conditions.

Two days later, the ruling Labour group on the city council tried to stop Phoenix operating the trade from Coventry. Phoenix sought a judicial review of the decision which resulted in a High Court hearing on 15 November.

The judge granted an interim injunction allowing Phoenix to continue flying from Coventry until the review, scheduled for 20 March Phoenix also aroused opposition from animal welfare groups. "They were outside the Coventry City Council offices with theirbanners at 11am today - an hour after the accident. Phoenix has had to put up with a lot of protests," a council spokesman said yesterday.

Maria Barrett-Jolly, 45, co-director of Phoenix and married to the managing director, said last night: "We are devastated . . . We will not know exactly what happened until we get the results of the inquiry."

She said that she and her family had been subjected to a terror campaign by animal rights activists. They have been subjected to death threats and yesterday received an unsigned Christmas card, which read: "Happy Christmas - enjoy it. It will be your last."

Phoenix has been running up to five flights a day, each carrying 190 calves. Before the ban about 500,000 calves a year were transported to the Continent. Phoenix's single Boeing 737 had enough capacity to fly almost half of the calf export trade to the Continent.

Following the ferry ban, the calf price dropped by about £50 per head, making it economic to fly the animals to France and the Netherlands. Another operator, flying from Aldergrove airport in Northern Ireland, also transports animals to the Continent using Russian Antonov 12 freighters.

MT Shipping operates from Millbay Docks in Plymouth, while SSE Ltd has begun a transport operation from docks in King's Lynn, Norfolk.

Mark Glover, of Respect for Animals, which organised the ferry boycott resulting in the ban, said: "One of our recent concerns was the use of a 21-year-old aircraft from a small airline and the undue haste with which these export routes were set-up.

"This plane was flying in and out of Coventry airport up to five times per day and this frequency highlights the greed of those involved with this trade."