The move has done enormous and possibly terminal damage to a rapidly expanding trade, despite the interest of smaller companies of taking some of the exports. In the past few years sheep exports had been rising by more than 50 per cent each year and are estimated to reach more than 2 million per year, almost all of which are slaughtered within hours of the end of a long lorry journey.
Calf exports from Britain have also been rising rapidly, and stood at more than 400,000 a year until the ferry ban came into effect. Most calves were only a couple of weeks old and destined for a few months of fattening before becoming veal.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Compassion in World Farming have spent years and hundreds of thousands of pounds on advertising to try to make the public put pressure on the Government to end the trade. It was pressure on the ferry companies from passengers who hated the thought of travelling alongside suffering animals that did the trick.
The animal welfare charities have long argued that animals should be slaughtered in Britain then transported as carcasses.
The British government now says it would prefer this, too. But if European consumers want British meat to be slaughtered in their own abattoirs, and butchered in the way they prefer, then that is their prerogative. If Britain's farmers do not meet their demands, those from other countries will.
A National Farmers Union spokeswoman, Sarah Cushing, said: 'We have to supply what the customer wants and this export trade is now a very important business for our members.'
The Ministry of Agriculture is to tighten its regulations on the welfare of animals in transit, but any enforceable improvements depend on agreement by all European Union agriculture ministers - and they are deeply divided. Nations such as Spain and France oppose drastic restrictions on journey times.Reuse content