The port ceased live exports in 2012 following an incident which saw two sheep drown and the RSPCA euthanise a further 47 sheep after they were found to be lame.
In 2011 the value of live exports in England alone equated to almost £300 million according to HMRC, with 37% of the exports going to the Irish Republic. However, just 0.14% of the UK’s exports are live animals.
There is a strong demand for quality live meat in Europe, much of it going into the halal market and selling for a premium price. One of the busiest times of year for live export is late October, when thousands of lambs and cull ewes are shipped to France due to the increasing demand for their meat for the Islamic festival Eid al-Adha where the RSCPA say many are killed without being pre-stunned. Stock is also commonly exported to the continent for further rearing and for breeding purposes.
Since the reintroduction of live exports from Ramsgate, Thanet district council has decided not to appeal against a high court ruling that the council’s ban on the exports was unlawful. But the long distance live transport of farm animals for further fattening and slaughter is an issue which the RSPCA and other organisations have been campaigning against for many years.
In 2013, about 40,000 animals were exported through the Port of Dover and in May, The Times newspaper reported that about 50,000 sheep and 5,000 cattle had been exported via Ramsgate over the last three years.
Following an online petition against live animal exports, the government responded to the situation saying they would rather see the export of meat than livestock. However, the export of livestock for slaughter within the European Union is a legal trade.
Currently, live sheep for the ethnic market in Paris and the western side of Europe are being sourced from countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. They travel at much lower welfare standards over 1,000 miles compared to the much shorter journey from Britain.
Kent Against Animal Live Export (KAALE) are continuing to protest regularly at Ramsgate, recording every lorry going out on the Joline. KAALE argues that their protests have seen a vast decrease in the amount of live animals being taken to the continent.
After P&O Ferries banned the export of live animals destined for consumption, it is no longer economically viable. The Joline charges £4,500 per lorry compared to the £450 P&O once charged.
P&O Ferries say they are only prepared to ship breeding livestock on their Dover to Calais and Irish Sea routes. Welfare is a concern to them, despite these animals being shipped in the same conditions as animals destined for slaughter. Currently, P&O will import live animals from Ireland to the UK but will not take them out of England. After South East Farmer contacted P&O Ferries about their rules on the live export of animals, it was revealed that sheep, cattle and pigs for slaughter are not permitted but they still allow the export of horses destined for the dinner plate.
Yvonne Birchall, secretary of KAALE, said: “We are not against farmers but we believe the animals should be killed here giving jobs to UK plc and not the foreign dealers who run the trade at the moment. When the animals are sold at market the farmers have no say in what happens to the stock and some don’t even know if they have been sold to an exporter.”
A number of online videos show KAALE protestors shouting at hauliers, police and port staff as well as banging on lorries and using megaphones. In 2012, the then farming minister David Heath said this could compromise animal welfare and delay sailings.
Frank Langrish, a sheep farmer based in East Sussex and spokesman for the NFU, predicted that if lambs could be exported economically there would be demand for around half a million store lambs between July and Christmas. If they were being sold for £60 in the UK, they would sell for at least £90 abroad.
“If live exports for consumption were to resume on regular P&O ferries we would benefit from the supply to Western Europe rather than those currently supplying them from the former Eastern Bloc countries,” Mr Langrish said. “The live export market and the dead meat market are entirely different markets and therefore an expansion of live exports would not impact on the UK market.”
However, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) argues that slaughtering animals in the UK for domestic consumption or meat exports would give additional jobs and profits to UK abattoirs and the UK economy would benefit from the added value derived from processing animals at home rather than abroad.
CIWF and the RSPCA are calling for tighter inspections after they tracked a livestock transporter for 23 hours to Germany and the driver did not inspect the animals once. They are also calling for more thorough inspections by DEFRA’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency before animals embark on their journey and for journey times to be reduced to less than eight hours.
Both KAALE and the RSPCA seemed unaware that animals exported for breeding are being transported in the same conditions as those for consumption. But both say they are less concerned about export for breeding.
KAALE claimed: “Our animals are the best so exporting breeding animals to improve bloodlines is an excellent idea.” The RSCPA said a more viable alternative to long journeys for livestock would be the export of semen or ova.
There is an alternative argument that too much emphasis has been placed on journey times and that greater focus should be placed on the quality of the journey. Studies have shown that journey length is not necessarily a contributing factor for animals during transportation. High stocking density in lorries was seen to have a substantial effect on welfare, causing a high number of injuries, aggressive and sexual behaviour and a general increase in stress levels.
High and very low stocking density on vehicles saw increasing welfare issues and a reduced carcass quality compared to those with medium stocking density.
High financial loss is seen from livestock bruising with a number of studies showing the skill of the driver, gentleness of handling and quality of the road were the main contributing factors to a compromise in animal welfare.
A further study in pigs showed that those travelling for longer periods of time exhibited reduced stress levels due to adaption to the environment and were therefore less susceptible to muscle damage.
While the RSPCA would like to see a full ban of live animal exports, in the meantime they are calling on every lorry to be checked at the port and the full costs of all inspections and facilities to be borne by the hauliers and shipping industry.
If livestock exports for breeding purposes were also banned, these animals would simply stay within the domestic supply chain and would not benefit the rest of the world to the same extent with their genetics.
The fact remains that if live exports from the UK to other European Union member states were stopped, the practice will continue in the rest of the EU where welfare conditions are more likely to be compromised.
Currently there are strict rules in place relating to transport times, rest periods, vehicle standards and animal haulier training. DEFRA has increased inspection rates to 100% for animals and vehicles loading at Ramsgate. This includes a checklist of 33 questions on the suitability of the vehicle – some of the most sophisticated in the world – and the welfare of the animals being transported.