I was a young reporter on my first paper, the Dover Express, when my dad, who worked in an office at the docks, related a story told to him by a colleague. He had seen one of the regular lorry-loads crammed with live sheep about to be shipped abroad – with a lamb’s leg sticking out through a side vent. When alerted to it, the lorry driver took an axe and simply chopped the leg off.
To this day I don’t know how much of the story was accurate but I knew it must contain some truth. I was so disturbed by it – and subsequently by the sight of the massive lorries packed with animals at the port – that I convinced my editor to let me launch a campaign against live exports. I hadn’t been looking to report on the subject, but felt I had little choice.
You may think a local paper should be impartial on all issues, but journalism has a long, honourable tradition of campaigning on issues that may not be illegal but are immoral or repugnant, ranging from miscarriages of justice to child victims of domestic violence and bullying.
Our campaign led to meetings, petitions and demonstrations at the docks, attended by police with a brief to prevent protesters from blocking the legal trade. It led to the founding of the South-east Campaign Against Live Exports (Scales), the forerunner of Kent Action Against Live Exports, which has since remained active in lobbying for political action on the trade.
You don’t have to be vegan, vegetarian or even particularly attuned to animal welfare to be sickened by live exports: they involve some of the most protracted cruelty ever dreamed up by man. It is not a glamorous issue, perhaps, but it is one we should all care about, in view of the undeniable mass suffering caused.
In the live export trade worldwide, sheep and cattle are crammed so tightly into lorries and ships that individuals very often cannot get close to food or water supplies – when those supplies exist (it’s not uncommon for them to fail). Add to this misery the extremes of temperature – particularly overheating to temperatures that would be unbearable for people – waste piling up on the floor and the travel motion, and the conditions create a perfect mix of gut-wrenching suffering.
Many of the foreign slaughterhouses where the animals end up have been exposed more than once as having abysmal standards of care, meaning the animals can die slowly and in pain. Most meat-eaters, however hardened, if they have a reasoned view of the world, would not agree this is right. Exposing the horrors is not about getting people to turn vegetarian but about ending the most egregious aspects of the overseas meat trade, something that farmers and vegans alike can agree on.
After decades of campaigning by animal welfare groups, the big ferry companies have stopped accepting shipments, leaving a few straggling “rust buckets” to continue the grotesque but dwindling cross-Channel business. Now, under Michael Gove’s consultation, the practice looks likely to be significantly curbed.
If other countries want British meat, we should be letting them import it as meat, not as living, breathing creatures. So Gove’s proposed ban is progress, and long overdue.
However, the ban is only a partial one, affecting those animals being sent abroad for slaughter, mostly sheep, and accounting for about three-quarters of the total numbers exported, while shipping animals to the continent for fattening for veal or beef – mostly young calves – will remain perfectly legal.
Last year, more than 20,000 live sheep were sent overseas for slaughter, while more than 6,200 cattle went for fattening, according to figures obtained by Compassion in World Farming. Under Gove’s plan, then, that’s still thousands of animals suffering needlessly. “On the hook, not the hoof” should apply to cattle as well as sheep.
Just as the environment secretary was preparing his announcement this week, Australia was rocked by footage exposing the horrific conditions in which sheep are exported from that country to the Middle East on sea journeys lasting up to three weeks. The expose prompted widespread anger, with calls louder than ever for a ban on the trade.
If it wants to be seen as a humane, principled country, Australia should follow Britain’s lead, although given that live exports are worth A$2bn a year and given the Middle Eastern appetite for meat slaughtered under halal rules, that will be a much more challenging proposition.
When we first started campaigning in Dover, I hoped – but in my heart never realistically believed – that a ban would happen in my lifetime. I am happy to have my gloomy prediction proven wrong.
Many felt the police, instead of monitoring the peaceful protesters, should have been turning to face the other way to halt the progression of “death lorries”. If the need to do this disappears, it will be a huge symbol of progress towards a better society and a model for other countries to follow.
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