Extreme cruelty inside Yorkshire slaughterhouse exposed

Posted on the 2nd February 2015

Hidden cameras capture horrific footage of religious slaughter without pre-stunning

Our cameras revealed:

  • Sheep kicked in the face; smashed into solid objects headfirst; picked up and hurled by legs, fleeces, throats and ears.
  • A worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep, then bouncing up and down.
  • Slaughterhouse workers erupting into laughter at a sheep bleeding to death with spectacles drawn around her eyes in green paint.
  • A worker holding a sheep by her throat and pulling back a fist as if to punch her.
  • Slaughtermen taunting and frightening the sheep by waving knives, smacking them on the head and shouting at them.

Over three days, national campaigning organisation Animal Aid, which opposes animal farming and slaughter, filmed covertly inside Bowood Yorkshire Lamb slaughterhouse in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. With fly-on-the-wall cameras, it captured the horrifying yet routine abuse and taunting of thousands of sheep, and the shambolic set-up that, says the group, guarantees animals will suffer.


During the course of our investigation, we discovered a remarkable weakness in the application of the law that requires all animals to be stunned prior to being killed unless the meat is intended for Muslim or Jewish consumers. The regulatory body, the Food Standards Agency, acknowledged to Animal Aid that any slaughterhouse can practise non-stun slaughter without demonstrating that the meat is destined for religious communities.*

Bowood is the tenth slaughterhouse in which Animal Aid has filmed undercover since we started our ongoing investigation into UK slaughter in January 2009. It is the first practising non-stun halal slaughter. The other previous nine were so-called ‘humane’ killing establishments. It was not known when our investigator entered Bowood slaughterhouse that it was killing animals for the halal market. The criminal welfare breaches and deliberate abuse he filmed are typical of what was found during previous covert filming at the ‘humane’ slaughterhouses. Those earlier breaches include animals being punched in the head, burnt with cigarettes, beaten with sticks, given electric shocks with stunning tongs, thrown and kicked, before having their throats cut (see notes).

At Bowood, which is owned by English father and son, Robert and William Woodward, sheep were kicked in the head and face; picked up by their ears, horns, fleeces, throats and legs, and hurled onto the conveyors; smashed headfirst into pallets; and turned over and thrown onto the conveyor upside down. One worker turned a sheep over and, while holding her by her throat, pulled back a fist as if to punch her. Another kicked a sheep in the face before standing on her neck and bouncing up and down. She wriggled free and hid in a corner where the worker left her to suffer.

The poor design and construction of the slaughterline further encouraged instances of such viciousness. The area was held together with pallets and string. Sheep fell some distance from a chute onto a slippery floor in the killing area, and were often unable to stand. They were then frequently launched at some speed headfirst into a solid upright structure. With the sheep unable or unwilling to cooperate, Animal Aid filmed the four conveyor operators each taking out their frustrations on the animals.

The Bowood management is culpable for failing to address the disastrous shortcomings of the slaughterline design, but responsibility also falls on the Food Standards Agency, which is contracted by Defra to monitor and enforce welfare standards – a duty assigned to vets, who work full-time in UK killing plants. Those vets were nowhere to be seen during our recording of thousands of sheep being killed.

The non-stun slaughter practised at Bowood, whereby animals have their throats cut while fully conscious, is a derogation from the law, and one that is available only for religious slaughter (see notes). Causing ‘unnecessary suffering’ remains a criminal offence, however, and the sharpness of the slaughterer’s knife is of paramount importance. Defenders of non-stun slaughter say that the animals die quickly after a ‘single cut with a surgically sharp knife’ and yet Animal Aid filmed one slaughterer hacking away at sheep’s throats, taking as many as five attempts to sever the blood vessels.

Halal monitoring bodies typically require that prayers should be said while animals are killed. At Bowood, there were no prayers but the radio blared out pop music, including Christmas songs. Halal meat should also come from animals who have not seen the knife, or other animals being killed. Again, at this slaughterhouse, animals were routinely immobilised on the conveyor while the slaughterer sharpened his knife and other sheep bled to death in front of them.

Furthermore, while the law demands that sheep who have not been stunned remain in position for at least 20 seconds after their throats are cut (to ensure they are no longer conscious), 86 per cent of sheep at Bowood were shunted off the end of the conveyor before that time had elapsed**, some in as little as one second and while their heads were up and they looked around.

  • Animal Aid reported Bowood Yorkshire Lamb to the Food Standards Agency, which suspended three men’s slaughter licences and built the cases for prosecution.

Says Kate Fowler, previous Head of Campaigns at Animal Aid:

‘The vicious attacks on defenceless, frightened animals at Bowood are inexcusable. All four conveyor operators we filmed over three days abused animals to varying degrees, while the slaughterers looked on unmoved. This is the tenth slaughterhouse in which we have filmed undercover, and it is the ninth to be caught breaking animal welfare laws. None of the abuses we uncovered would have come to light without our cameras being in place, even though there is a government-appointed vet at each slaughterhouse.Since our first investigation in 2009, we have been calling on the government to make independently monitored CCTV cameras compulsory for slaughterhouses, and yet – despite our evidence of widespread, vicious attacks – it resolutely refuses. In doing so, it fails the animals to no lesser an extent than the men who physically beat, kick and abuse them.’

Thankfully since this investigation took place, mandatory CCTV is legally required in all English slaughterhouses and the measure is due to pass secondary legislation for Scotland in 2021.

The Outcome

Within eight months of revealing the cruelty and law-breaking at Bowood, the company ceased trading and went into administration.  In March 2016, we learned that the two former owners of the slaughterhouse were charged with animal cruelty offences, together with three slaughtermen who worked at the abattoir.

Following preliminary hearings (the first in April 2016), a district judge ruled on 9 September 2016 that the Bowood Slaughterhouse case had run out of time. The court was told that there was a delay of almost a year between the Food Standards Agency receiving footage filmed by Animal Aid and submitting this to the Crown Prosecution Service. The Crown Prosecution Service is expected to appeal the decision.

On 2nd March 2018 we finally reached the outcome of the long-running Bowood slaughterhouse case. Three slaughtermen and one former company director were sentenced at Leeds Magistrates Court, after pleading guilty to animal cruelty offences. Three defendants received suspended prison sentences (between 16-20 weeks) and all were ordered to pay costs. We are extremely disappointed with this outcome, which does not reflect the severity of the abuse uncovered at Bowood. This involved horrendous incidents of cruelty meted out to defenceless animals.

Stills taken from the undercover film:

Notes to Editors

* ‘Every abattoir has the capability to carry out religious slaughter without stunning, intended for the religious community, once approved under European legislation, though business operators must seek specific approval for use of adult bovine restraint boxes for religious slaughter without stunning.… The legislation does not currently require business operators to keep records to demonstrate an intention to supply meat slaughtered in accordance with religious rites to the Jewish and Muslim communities, and this is not something that we can monitor.’ – Chief Operating Officer, Food Standards Agency, 26th Jan 2015

** The first 500 sheep Animal Aid filmed were observed and the time from when they were cut to the time they were shunted off the conveyor recorded. Of these 500, 431 were moved less than 20 seconds after being cut.

Proportion of sheep given greater or less than 20 seconds to lose consciousness

Time given to lose consciousness for sheep falling less than 20 seconds after being cut

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