WOOLLY PROMISES to our nation’s farmers seem to be the default position of the UK Government when it comes to safeguarding the future of our nation’s food producers.

We are all still waiting with bated breath to see if agriculture is to become the sacrificial lamb in pursuit of ambitious trade deals with countries who do not meet our production and welfare standards.

No one will forget the headlines over the past year which warned of chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef flooding our supermarket shelves in a post-Brexit era. It prompted a huge outcry from the public and over a million signatures backing a petition by the National Farmers Union, calling on the Government to make sure future food imports met UK production standards.

Despite a drawn-out game of parliamentary ping pong between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, calls to enshrine standards into law fell on deaf ears. We were left with vague manifesto promises that our farmers wouldn’t be undermined in future trade deals, offering little comfort in the absence of ironclad commitments.

The UK Government is once again offering vague assurances to Scottish farmers that proposals for a ban on live animal exports for fattening and slaughter would not apply to Scotland’s island communities – some of whom rely on overseas journeys to transport livestock, due to a lack of local slaughtering capacity.


Top of the range livestock containers used by NorthLink for transporting livestock between the Northern Isles and Aberdeen

Defra’s consultation on the “Welfare of Animals at Transport” – which closed on Thursday last week – relates to journeys in (or partly in) England and Wales, proposing restrictions on journey length and conditions, including outside temperature during transport, headroom, and stocking density.

Although this is a devolved area of policy and the Scottish Government has just concluded its own consultation, there is a need for a single standard within the UK to allow for seamless cross-border journeys. Both in terms of equipment and journey regulations – different sets of rules would create major problems.

Albeit a welcome commitment from both governments to look to scrutinise and increase animal welfare standards, the proposals demonstrate a lack of understanding of the way livestock farming operates in the UK.

One of the more ridiculous proposals within the Defra consultation is the suggestion of imposing temperature limits of 5-30 degrees C for transit. Given that livestock can exist happily in sub-zero temperatures on farm, this proposal speaks volumes about the authors of the consultation and their lack of expertise on UK livestock production.

If our recent cold spell at the start of the year is anything to go by, then such proposals could also see our meat supply chains come to a halt in the winter months, which could lead to shortages of UK meat on our supermarket shelves. It would be a slap in the face to UK producers if a move to improve animal welfare on our shores led to increasing imports from countries where we have no say in how their animals are transported – not to mention the carbon footprint attached.

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Supporters of an outright ban often are unaware that a ban on live animal exports to Europe could lead to our remote island communities potentially being subject to the same restrictions.

Since the closure of Orkney’s only abattoir in January 2018, there is no longer an option to slaughter locally, thus all livestock are transported live, mostly as store for fattening, overseas from Kirkwall to Aberdeen – a ferry route of paramount importance to the whole rural community.

When Michael Gove first raised the idea of a potential live transport ban back in 2018, I travelled to Orkney to follow the 10-hour route of livestock from Kirkwall to the mainland, to see up close the travel conditions for myself. I was very impressed by the top of the range aluminium containers used for transport, designed with high animal welfare in mind. Key aspects of the containers included hay racks to provide the animals with feed, water nozzles to provide water during voyage, but also inspection lights to enable checks during the trip. There was also a hospital pen, so a specific animal could be separated if required.


High spec aluminium livestock containers designed with animal welfare in mind

Multiple times Defra ministers have been invited to visit the islands and see first-hand the equipment being used to ship these animals and to gauge an understanding as to how important these sea routes are to the island communities, but they prefer to call for damaging legislative change from the comfort of their offices.

I agree with public support for animals to be slaughtered as close to the point of production as possible, but there needs to be the infrastructure in place to allow this to happen.

Several areas of the country are without local abattoirs, and these black spots are likely to increase in size and number without urgent help. There were 264 small red meat abattoirs in the UK in 2001, but the latest 2020 figures show there are approximately only 90 left. If the decline is allowed to continue, the supply of fully traceable local meat will dry up.

There are many reasons behind closures, which include the likes of increasing infrastructure costs to upgrade and maintain equipment, mounting paperwork and waste disposal costs.

Only last year, the Isle of Mull’s abattoir managed to secure private funding to prevent it from closing after warnings in August 2019 that the community owned business was struggling to cover capital expenses such as broken chillers and building repairs. Without this abattoir, the farmers would have had to take animals to North Lanarkshire or similar distances of close to five-plus hours which many would have seen as unviable and would have ceased trading.

Serious intervention is needed to support existing abattoirs, and for new enterprises to replace those that have closed, to ensure farmers aren’t having to travel unnecessary distances to slaughter their livestock. Now is the time for ironclad commitments – not empty government promises – when it comes to supporting the future of livestock farming on our islands.

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