Campaigners against livestock exports have pledged zero tolerance to animal welfare breaches at ports where the trade continues.

Thousands of calves and sheep have been transported to the continent from Ramsgate, Kent, since May last year.

Many farmers see the trade – which is legitimate – as opening the gateway to vital markets for British livestock.

But opponents include the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and local authority Thanet Council.

RSPCA Chief Inspector Dermot Murphy told Farmers Weekly: “A number animal welfare concerns have been highlighted to us.”

The RSPCA had “serious concerns” about the design and speed of vessel being used to transport livestock and facilities at the port, he added.

The animal welfare charity did not believe there was any suitable unloading area at Ramsgate for sick or injured animals.

“These are the reasons why the RSPCA is hoping to have inspectors at the port, to see for ourselves if there are any potential welfare issues.”

The RSPCA is against the live shipment of animals that can travel long distances for further fattening and slaughter.

Thanet District Council says it would end the livestock export trade if it could. But it is powerless to do so, because shipments of animals are legal.

Councillor Michelle Fenner said: “We will use the law in terms of animal welfare and our duty of care to put pressure on DEFRA and the UK Government to assist us in the implementation of zero tolerance of this awful trade.”

Emma Slawinski, senior campaigns manager at Compassion in World Farming, said the group was working with local campaigners to end shipments.

“Ramsgate is still an unwilling participant in this cruel trade,” she said.

“It shouldn’t be legal in 2012 to transport two-week-old calves from Cumbria to Spain, but it is.”

A joint working group between Thanet council, the RSPCA and CIWF will now be formed to campaign against shipments.

The RSPCA plans to give “due notice” it will prosecute hauliers and shippers if any cases of animal abuse are uncovered.