Live export ban: Law to stop shipping animals overseas for slaughter passed - in 'big day' for animal welfare

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Once the new law gets Royal Assent, cows, sheep, pigs and horses will no longer be shipped to Europe to be fattened up and slaughtered.

Animal welfare charities are celebrating, as a law banning the export of live animals for slaughter passes its final parliamentary hurdle - after some 100 years of campaigning.

On Tuesday, Members of the House of Lords voted in favour of the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill, meaning it has now passing the final stage of its parliamentary journey. The law, which will now go on for Royal Assent, will effectively end the export of animals from Great Britain for fattening or slaughter overseas - including cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses.

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Until the new bill is finalised, it currently remains legal to ship livestock to Europe for the purposes of further fattening and slaughter. Although no animals have explicitly been exported for this purpose since December 2020, some animal welfare organisations fear it is still happening, sometimes illegally - especially regarding animals like horses.

The law comes after decades of criticism from organisations like the RSPCA, who say these animals often suffer in cramped, squalid conditions for days at a time. It has proved popular with the public too, with a 87% of respondents in a 2020 public consultation in favour of the ban.

However, some farmers have raised concerns about the bill, while some animals are not covered. Here’s everything you need to know:

The RSPCA says many animals suffer on these long journeys (Photo: Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA)The RSPCA says many animals suffer on these long journeys (Photo: Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA)
The RSPCA says many animals suffer on these long journeys (Photo: Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA)

What do animal welfare organisations say about the ban?

The RSPCA, alongside other British animal welfare charities, has been fighting to end what it describes as “the gruelling and unnecessary journeys of livestock exported abroad for further fattening and slaughter” for around 100 years now. 

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Transported animals endure crowded, gruelling and dangerous journeys - some lasting upwards of 100 hours - leading to mental exhaustion, injury, hunger, dehydration and stress, the charity says. UK government data shows an estimated 40 million animals have been exported for this purpose since the 1960s.

Advocacy director Emma Slawinski said: “This is a momentous moment for animals - with this vote marking one of the biggest days for animal welfare in modern history.” She had witnessed up close the reality of these exports and the impact they have on animals, she continued.

“I’ll forever be haunted by the smell that comes off an export truck, and the calls of the animals inside which can still be heard as the ship leaves the port and sails into the distance. Every time I talk about the live exports of animals, that smell and those sounds come back to me.”

World Horse Welfare, an international charity headquartered in the UK, hopes the pivotal new law will also end the often more illicit live export of British horses, ponies, and donkeys for slaughter. Earlier this year, it rescued a lorry full of horses - many sick, pregnant, or without the proper export papers - abandoned in a Kent holding yard, suspected to be bound for a European slaughterhouse. Worryingly, 13 of them had been signed out of the food chain in the UK.

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British animal welfare organisations have been campaigning to end live exports for a century (Photo: World Horse Welfare/Supplied)British animal welfare organisations have been campaigning to end live exports for a century (Photo: World Horse Welfare/Supplied)
British animal welfare organisations have been campaigning to end live exports for a century (Photo: World Horse Welfare/Supplied)

Chief executive Roly Owers said: “Today is a defining moment in our nearly century-long and founding campaign. The passage of this law ensures that no horse, pony or donkey will legally be exported from Great Britain for slaughter.”

While this was a monumental step forward, he said plenty more needed to happen to combat the illegal export of equines from the country. “This will rely on the new law being effectively enforced and the introduction of full traceability of all equines, and we look forward to working with Defra to achieve this. In the 21st century it is preposterous that equine ID is still based on a paper system, which simply provides an open door for horse smugglers.”

Are any livestock animals excluded from the bill?

On the government’s information page for the bill, it gives the full list of animals covered as: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses. This means poultry, including chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, are not covered.

For the protected animals (horses in particular), live export will still be permitted for the purposes of breeding, and competitions or races.

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The bill also doesn’t apply to Northern Ireland - or to the Republic of Ireland. However, it would apply to journeys where animals are moved through Great Britain to a destination outside the British Isles, for example to those that begin in Northern Ireland and are trucked through England to be shipped overseas, from a port like Dover.

Are there any concerns about the bill?

The National Farmer’s Union (NFU) has previously raised concerns about how the government will ensure international trade deals also meet these standards, to make sure local farmers are not undercut.

Deputy president Stuart Roberts said: “It’s clear that the government has ambitions to be a global leader in animal welfare, an objective we support, but I would urge them to carefully consider how requirements set at home will be balanced when striking new trade deals.

“While the ban on live exports was expected, it is concerning that the government is pursuing trade negotiations with countries that export large numbers of animals for fattening and slaughter,” he continued. “It’s imperative that if we set certain standards for British farmers we ensure we do not undercut them in trade deals by imports that do not meet those same expectations. If we are to be a global leader in this area, we must hold our trading partners to the same standard and not simply offshore our conscience.”

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