Agriculture Minister David Heath announced that all consignments of live animals scheduled to pass through the port will be checked by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) in a move that will strengthen welfare checks and deal with any breaches more effectively. The increased level of inspections will remain until the government is satisfied that there is no longer a high risk to the welfare of the animals involved in the live export trade.
The move is aimed to prevent a repeat of an incident which happened in Ramsgate in September in which more than 40 sheep had to be put down on the grounds of animal welfare. It seems that the animals' condition was only spotted after the lorry being used to transport the sheep was declared to be unfit to travel due to faults with the vehicle. On inspection, one sheep was found to have a broken leg and another was injured, but the situation swiftly deteriorated after the animals were unloaded while another vehicle was sought and the area used to store them collapsed, leading to six sheep falling into the water and two drowning. The sheep were inspected again and 40 were found to be lame and were shot.
As well as inspecting each consignment for signs of animal distress or injury, the AHVLA will work with the operator of the transport vessel to develop new contingency measures in the event of an emergency, and will be able to implement its own contingency plans in the event of an emergency if the transporter is unwilling or unable to implement their own plans within two hours. Procedures will be also improved to ensure that an AHVLA vet is always within an hour’s reach of the port, in order to assist AHVLA inspectors in the event of an emergency or welfare concern, and stricter records will be kept of animals in transit, with restrictions on the changes that the transporter can make to the journey log of the delivery prior to the export, to ensure the clarity of records. Reminders have been sent to private vets who provide certification before a live export can begin of the legal requirements.
Food and Farming Minister David Heath said: “We would prefer to see animals slaughtered as close as possible to where they are reared, but while live animal exports remain a legal trade under European laws we must allow it to continue.
“Our animal welfare laws must be followed to the letter so that no animal is made to suffer during transport. Until I am entirely satisfied that there is no longer a risk to the welfare of animals at Ramsgate, I have ordered AHVLA to check every consignment of live animals scheduled to pass through the port. I want a zero tolerance approach – if we find any evidence of slipping welfare standards then we will not hesitate to take action.”
“In addition, following the shocking events at Ramsgate on 12 September, we are tightening up our procedures to deal with breaches of welfare standards. It is completely unacceptable that more than 40 sheep died unnecessarily and I am determined that this cannot happen again. I intend to visit the port at the next available opportunity and witness the loading and inspection process myself.”
Currently, an AHVLA vet is present at inspections which take place on-farm when animals are loaded for transport, with a further visual check made at the port by AHVLA inspectors before the vehicle is allowed to board the ship and depart. The number of consignments which are inspected is dependent on the AHVLA’s assessment of risk, including past history, but currently the AHVLA are inspecting all consignments at the point of loading.
MPs are due to debate the issue in the House of Commons on Thursday.
The NFU has welcomed the changes. NFU head of food and farming Philip Hudson said: “Safeguarding the welfare of their animals during transport is a top priority for hauliers and farmers and the NFU has long called for the current controls to be rigorously enforced not just in the UK but across the EU.
“Most farm animals are transported at some stage during their lives for breeding purposes or for further rearing. The key issue is that these animals are transported under the right conditions in order that they arrive at their destination fit and healthy. Journeys over eight hours or between EU member states make up a very small but important minority of all movements and these take place using specially designed vehicles. This operation is subject to comprehensive legislative controls, vehicles used for such journeys must be approved by the authorities, drivers must pass tests to transport animals on longer journeys, all animals travelling out of GB must be approved by a vet before travel and appropriate contingencies are in place to deal with any unforeseen circumstances.
“Today’s announcement will hopefully help clear some of the confusion regarding who is legally responsible for the enforcement of animal welfare regulations during transit and remove the need for any third party involvement”
Thanet District Council, which owns Ramsgate port, also welcomed the announcement. Cabinet Member at Thanet District Council, Cllr Michelle Fenner, said: “The Minister is echoing what we said right from the start that the welfare of animals in transit is paramount and that there must be zero tolerance of any abuse. This was the reason why we took the decision in September to impose a temporary ban.
"We therefore welcome this announcement from the Minister and we look forward to strict implementation of the tougher welfare controls. We sincerely hope that the new controls will mean that a repeat of the tragic events which occurred on 12 September is out of the question.
“We will continue to support reducing the maximum time limit for animal transports to eight hours, as this is line with our current council policy. We also call on the UK Parliament and Central Government to take the necessary steps to make it happen so that Local Authorities like Thanet District Council are not left fighting court cases on their own about a situation that is not their doing."
However the RSPCA said it remained doubtful that the new measures would improve the situation. A spokesman told MeatInfo: “Defra’s promise to improve inspections is nothing new - it is exactly what they have said they will do all along - but are not doing it. An example is yesterday, after this announcement had been made, AHVL were down at Ramsgate and took just 16 minutes to “inspect” four transporters containing hundreds of sheep. They spent one minute inspecting one of the transporters.”
“We are not comforted by their promises at all.”