Animal Aid

A BRUTAL BUSINESS - Livestock Markets

In May 1997 Animal Aid published a landmark report on conditions in British livestock markets. What follows is a summary of this report.

Since March 1993, when we published Auctioning Animal Flesh, we have pursued this theme - highlighting the wanton cruelty and neglect that is still prevalent in UK auctions. There are nearly 200 of them, through which some 20 million farm animals are bartered every year.

Our 1993 report caused tremors throughout the Ministry of Agriculture, and the accompanying undercover film was subsequently used to train officials responsible for market welfare. More significantly, Auctioning Animal Flesh unleashed a volunteer band of MarketWatch monitors who, with support from national Animal Aid, are today acting as advocates on behalf of those 20 million cattle, sheep and pigs. They press their case at the markets themselves, with vets, local authority trading standards officers and, where possible, through the courts.

Our new market report presents the testimony of this highly committed group of monitors. In particular, it draws together reports of visits made earlier this year to more than 30 auctions across England - from Cornwall to Northumberland. The picture that emerges is a dismal one:

  • animals rarely given water, even in the driest of weather
  • seriously injured and diseased animals offered for sale
  • the routine use of sticks and boots
  • penning so inadequate that it leads to animals breaking limbs
  • callous indifference on the part of too many local authority and Ministry of Agriculture officials, who are supposed to be the animals' last line of defence.

Four years of MarketWatching has produced some gains

Individual drovers have been won over and now treat animals with more consideration. Some vets and trading standards departments have also begun to co-operate and respect the monitors' motives.

But there remain serious structural problems - not least the many ramshackle, antiquated buildings still in use; drovers who have no understanding or interest in welfare matters; and poor enforcement of the law, which is itself inadequate.

A first principle of market monitoring is that it be done without aggression, in line with Animal Aid's policy of non-violence. In fact, necessity alone would dictate this approach, since a MarketWatch team is usually two or three individuals operating in a hostile and alien environment. Even so, we have recorded numerous examples of monitors being verbally abused and intimidated, and some cases of physical assault or of cameras being grabbed and/or smashed.

A recent example from the West Midlands relates to a prize-winning pig farmer unloading animals from a small, two-deck trailer.

"I don't know if the ramps from the top floor had broken," our monitor reports, "but the pigs were being dragged out by the hind legs and simply fell to the ground. I had a friend with me and we both took photos. I was assaulted and my camera stolen."

The police were called and proved to be supportive.

"Since that incident," the MarketWatcher writes, "they have unloaded their animals properly."

From the South West we received another typical account of pig abuse:

"The driver of this lot had no assistance. The sows were loaded first. It became obvious he was already in a bad mood and his mood deteriorated. As he started to raise the platform to the top level, the last sow panicked and started to come back over the flap. She was hit repeatedly on the face around the eyes and ears with the full force of the driver's foot - he was in no danger from her."

At the same market, instead of 'wholesome water' as the law requires, the cattle's bowl was filled with faeces. From a Wiltshire market we heard of two troughs frozen solid on a January morning. The mere existence of drinking bowls and troughs is a rarity in UK markets. Sometimes the abuse is more subtle.

"I'd say this market was better than most," writes a west country monitor, "but it's still a stressful place for animals. They are obviously thought of as commodities rather than living individuals requiring respect. Apart from the main problems there are many examples of lack of consideration - people smoking next to animals' heads, unnecessary abuse caused by banging of metal gates and swearing at animals."

Major concerns persist at a Kent market, despite a brave, long-standing campaign by local monitors which includes liaising with all relevant regulatory officials. Thefollowing extracts from their reports are indicative:

"One of the drivers was a very bad and rough handler of sheep, constantly hitting and kicking the lambs while loading them. We also saw him throw at least four into the lorry. I told him to stop being so rough and we watched him load the rest, to his annoyance. But our watching did calm him down a bit."

"At 11 am we witnessed a ewe jump a pen and completely snap her leg. It broke and bone protruded her skin. She held her leg up high to her hind flank and the foot swung loose. The farmer said he would go and find the vet to get a certificate so she could be taken to the abattoir - about 20 minutes drive from the market. After about five minutes the leg started to bleed where the bone was poking through."

The monitors called the RSPCA and trading standards officials. Later, a vet arrived and the farmer told him he was going to put the ewe on his lorry and take her to slaughter.

"The vet told him no way could the ewe be moved in that condition. He would first have to immobilise the leg with a splint. We asked the vet if he would put the ewe down, as the journey would just prolong her pain - she was nearly falling over and was very wobbly. But it was obvious the farmer wanted her bled so as to get some money from her. She was carried on to the lorry and for us it was agony to see her suffer like this. It was an hour by the time she left the market. She had stood in the pouring rain and gale force winds with a broken leg for all that time. She wasn't even put in a casualty bay."

On March 12, Animal Aid's campaigns officer, Becky Smith, and Director Andrew Tyler met with the four most senior Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) officials responsible for welfare at markets and during transport. During a three hour meeting we made clear our concerns. In reply, they claimed that they had no direct control over how local authorities enforce market law - even though the law was framed and introduced by MAFF.

In a statement of masterly complacency Tim Boulding, the department's head, told Animal Aid:

"We don't think there's a major problem out there. We do, however, need to be positive and talk to people [local council trading standards departments] about improving enforcement and we also need to talk to a few markets about the Code of Practice."

Markets law

Treatment of animals at markets is governed by the Welfare of Animals at Markets Order 1990 and a 1993 Amendment. Both carry the force of law - it being a criminal offence to breach their various provisions relating to how much force is permitted while handling animals, the protection of animals from unnecessary suffering, the sale of unfit animals, plus questions of penning, caging, feeding and watering.

Guidance as to what the government regards as good welfare practices is contained in MAFF's Code of Practice on the Welfare of Animals In Livestock Markets. While this does not carry the force of law, it is often used in court cases to support a prosecution.

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