16 February 1996



The EU Directive, Welfare of Animals in Transit, has to be implemented by member states by Dec 31, 1996.

John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, explains how high standards in the road-haulage industry are integral to the future stability of the UKs stratified sheep production structure

THE reason we move sheep around the UK, Europe and other parts of the world is down to economics, supply and demand. These are the three main constituents of all trade.

Economics dictate meat factories operate for as long a season as possible and they therefore secure supplies from the areas of production as they come on seasonable stream.

So there is a migratory flow which follows seasonal grass production every year. To try to change it would be to tamper with nature. For this reason sheep production will continue to depend on seasonal grass production.

This will mean continued use of a transport system which will move sheep considerable distances.

It is an important and integral part of the sheep industry. Without this facility we would not be able to make best economic use of our natural resources.

This in turn would mean the traditional role of the sheep as an extensive grazing animal living off natural pasture in a whole variety of circumstances from mountain to upland and lowland would have to change. The species would then find itself in direct competition with more intensive species such as pigs and poultry.

The other side is associated with the existence of communities of people in remote areas. The main source of employment here has to do with sheep keeping.

If sheep loose their ability to compete with other meats there will be an adverse effect upon those rural communities.

At the same time we will also loose another part of the balance of agriculture. Areas which are currently relatively tidy and reflective of a properly organised society will become barren wastelands.

Twenty years ago there were over 1500 abattoirs in UK with a total killing capacity of 12.6m cattle units. Last year there were less than 450 abattoirs killing in excess of 13.6m cattle. The same progression in other countries.

Currently over 70% of sheep slaughtering takes place in the UK in abattoirs with a throughput in excess of 100,000. This capacity is concentrated in something like 48 abattoirs throughout the country. What this highlights is that sheep are often moved fair distances in the UK to be slaughtered.

Most UK sheep marketing uses the auction system.

The accepted figure is about 75% go through auction with 25% selling through co-operative groups and the electronic auction. Prices for sheep sold via the smaller percentage are influenced almost entirely by auction market prices. This to militate against a shift for more stock to go deadweight. There is more than an even probability the status quo will remain.

The traditional auction market will therefore retain its importance, but there is likely to be sustained effort for development in line with market forces and other outside influences.

One of these changes will include reductions in mart numbers. We need to take account of the fact farms have increased considerably in size and there has been a revolution in the road and motorway network across Europe. A major slice of community funding has been deployed in this way and the standard generally is now high.

The fact there will be less markets should therefore have no adverse effects. As new sophisticated market complexes are built, it could be argued, the situation is better not only for producers who supply them and buyers who procure from them but also for the welfare of the stock as great care has been taken to design penning and livestock flows to coincide with knowledge of animal behaviour and modern transport.

Again, the influence of economics has a bearing on the situation. The auction market serves as a efficient collection and dispersal point – a public place where everyone can see how business is conducted and animals treated.

It is likely they will reduce in number but their throughput remain, certainly for sheep, bearing in mind the highly stratified nature of its production structure.

With the development of the EU our agricultural industries have become more interdependent. With the UKs live lamb trade of considerable economic importance, countries such as UK and France – which find it mutually beneficial to trade – must be allowed to continue to do so. Is that not what the EU was developed for?

In line with so many other things livestock transport has got bigger, faster and more sophisticated. There is clear legislation which sets down minimum standards. The benefits manifest themselves in better welfare of animals, better welfare for drivers and with the new roads which are a constant part of EU development, the ability to move stock greater distances, quickly, under the best welfare conditions.

But the fact remains. Animals in future will have to be trucked further to be slaughtered at fewer, more sophisticated larger abattoirs springing up around Europe to replace smaller, older abattoirs. The emphasis therefore has to be on ensuring high standards in the road-haulage industry. There is no place for second-rate operators. &#42

An up-and-running example of tomorrows market at Penrith, Cumbria. Here great care has been taken to design penning and livestock flow to coincide with knowledge of animal behaviour and modern transport.

NSAs John Thorley: There is no place for second-rate operators.