Green lobby with power to pluck at heartstrings

David Nicholson-Lord on the remarkable growth of the animal rights camp aign
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The Independent Online
The turbulent confrontations over the export of live farm animals demonstrate the primacy of animal welfare as a "green" issue: it possesses a unique capacity for plucking at the heart strings.

In part this is the result of human affinities with the natural world which underpin the environmental movement. But it also a tribute to a highly successful protest campaign.

This has involved long-established organisations like the RSPCA and newer, more radical groups like Respect for Animals, founded by campaigners against the fur trade. Alongside bodies such as Compassion in World Farming, the International Fund for AnimalWelfare, Advocates for Animals and the Farm Animal Welfare Network , they have not only won the battle for public sympathy but in the process defeated an organisation once noted for its lobbying power and influence in Whitehall - the National Farmers' Union.

The measure of their success was the decision last year by all the major ferry companies to ban the export of live animals, in many cases against more "rational" and commercial judgements and in response to a vigorous demonstration of consumer power.

Stena Sealink, one of the last operators to give in, said it had received "hundreds of thousands" of letters, adding: "We're listening to the wishes of an increasing number of our passengers." When the RSPCA published full-page newspaper advertisements

calling for an eight-hour limit on journeys, 56,000 people rang in to support it.

Given the strength of feeling about animal welfare, such responses are scarcely surprising. Animal issues regularly top the league tables of environmental concern: a survey last month by Mintel, the market research organisation, showed that animal testing was by some distance the most deeply felt green issue, cited by 48 per cent compared with 32 per cent for the ozone layer.

On live exports this underlying reservoir of concern was tapped by copious television news footage of suffering livestock on long Continental journeys and an accumulation of hard data. The RSPCA found that nine out of 10 lorries exceed maximum journey times and one consignment of sheep bound for Holland ended up in Greece two and a half days later with 400 of the 600 animals dead.

The animal welfare case is that once the animals are over the Channel rules on welfare and journey times are pointless. Last month, after European farm ministers failed to reach agreement on maximum journey times - an eight-hour maximum and a 24-hour maximum were both on the table - Britain announced that it was going ahead with its own rules for a 15-hour maximum from 23 January. According to Mark Glover, of Respect for Animals, the rules will be "unworkable": the Continental authorities will simply not enforce them.

About 2.5 million lambs and calves were exported to Europe in 1993. Sheep face long, crowded journeys without food and water. The calves, meanwhile, are sent abroad into veal crates - a veal production system banned in Britain which produces the pale veal favoured by the consumers of Germany, France and Italy.

The paleness is produced by keeping the calves in the dark in tiny crates and giving them a diet which leaves them "on the borders of anaemia". Calves taken from their mothers at a day old are said to cry for them and to spend most of the time in the crates before slaughter licking and nuzzling each other for company.

Mr Glover said: "They are social animals. All they want is to be with their mothers and others of their kind. It is pathetically sad to see them in these conditions."

Slaughtering rules also vary widely across the Continent. Unlike the UK, many countries do not practise pre-stunning, for example. The animal welfare lobby says the live animals trade is unnecessary and blames "over-intellectual" media pundits for denigrating such feelings as "sentimentality". Science, for example, has shown that animals can suffer stress. Mr Glover says emotion, not sentimentality, is what drives the protests, "and there is nothing wrong with emotion . . . it is part of being human".