Scottish government defends ‘illegal’ live calf exports as court battle looms

Exclusive: Paperwork on last year’s shipments was deliberately misleading to evade potential ban, investigators claim

Jane Dalton
Sunday 14 June 2020 18:02
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Compassion in World Farming asks courts to rule live transport trade illegal

The Scottish government is going to court to defend the practice of sending live baby calves to Europe, even though Boris Johnson has previously backed a ban on live exports after Brexit.

Experts say Scotland’s calf exports are illegal because journeys breach an eight-hour time limit, and they have launched a court battle to try to halt the exports.

It comes as the findings of an investigation suggest paperwork on last year’s shipments submitted to authorities was misleading. Opponents of the trade suspect it was an attempt to evade a potential future ban.

About 5,500 very young male calves discarded by dairy farmers each year are sent abroad, particularly to Spain and even north Africa, where they are fattened and slaughtered as beef or veal.

By law, journeys over eight hours are not permitted for unweaned calves unless, after nine hours of travel, they are given a one-hour break for rest, water and “if necessary”, food.

In practice, the animals – still dependent on their mothers’ milk – are not unloaded after the first nine hours, according to campaign group Compassion in World Farming (CiWF).

Instead they are transported from Scotland to northern France through the port of Ramsgate for up to 23 hours without food – in breach of the law on journey limits, it’s claimed.

CiWF has launched judicial review proceedings against the Scottish government, saying that if it wins, British live calf exports could not continue in their current form, which “could spare thousands of unweaned calves every year from suffering on exhausting journeys”.

But live exports form a large source of income for Scottish farmers, and Holyrood is fighting back, trying to get the case dropped.

The UK government’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is also thought to be planning to defend live exports if the case goes ahead.

The prime minister has previously condemned live exports, having pledged – before the Brexit vote – that leaving the EU would allow the UK to ban the trade, which European law did not permit.

In 2018, Mr Johnson condemned the trade as “barbaric”, writing in The Sun of the “nightmare” journeys animals endure: “They are terrified. They slip and slide in their own excrement as the boats buck in the swell. They travel for more than 100 hours in conditions of such extreme discomfort that campaigners have been protesting for decades.

“The animals know they are going to die – and they are going to die far from home.”

The Scottish parliament has previously debated banning exports of live animals for slaughter or fattening.

And the 2019 Conservative election manifesto promised to end “excessively long journeys for slaughter and fattening”.

But CiWF has discovered that official logs on every sailing last year bar one listed the purpose of the export as “breeding” – so the shipments would be exempt from any ban.

A spokeswoman said: “It is most unlikely that breeding is the reason for more than 3,400 two- to six-week-old male calves being exported, given the numbers being exported per sailing, the conditions in which they are exported, and the age of the calves in question; these calves are clearly not of breeding age.

“We are worried that the decision to begin classifying these exports for ‘breeding’ may be an attempt to evade any potential future ‘fattening’ or ‘slaughter’ export ban.”

In a reply to CiWF, seen by The Independent, rural economy minister Fergus Ewing wrote: “I can assure you that there was no intention to mislead and that officials will sense-check any future data of this kind.”

He added: “Our knowledge of the trade permitted us to deduce that the likely purpose was fattening and production, although the possibility remains that certain of the transported calves may have been later used for breeding.”

The Independent has approached the Scottish government for a comment.

A spokesman for Defra said the government would be launching a public consultation in due course on “excessively long journeys for slaughter and fattening” - which it pledged at the election to end.

The government held a call for evidence in 2018 on controlling live exports for slaughter and to improve animal welfare during transport after Brexit, but Defra says the new consultation will be wider in scope.

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