In recent weeks, the UK has moved towards a ban on exporting live animals for slaughter after announcing a major review of laws regulating their transport.
nvironment secretary Michael Gove said that once Britain leaves the EU, the country could ban the export of thousands of live farm animals to mainland Europe.
The policy which will likely be opposed by farming organisations would enjoy support from campaign groups pushing for a broad ban, amid rising anger over animals suffering terrible health problems and death as they are taken in trucks across the continent.
It is also the latest move from Mr Gove to secure the environmental agenda for the Conservatives, following high-profile announcements to tighten animal welfare regulation and tackle plastic pollution.
Launching a six-week consultation on the exports ban, the cabinet minister said: “All animals deserve to get the respect and care they deserve at every stage of their lives.
“This call for evidence begins to deliver on our manifesto commitment which aims to control the export of live animals for slaughter once we leave the European Union.”
Mr Gove said all options for future improvements of animal welfare during transport are being considered, including the potential ban on the live export for slaughter.
The Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which advises the government, has also launched a review into the existing welfare standards for animals during transport.
In a recent paper on the issue, the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) in Northern Ireland said as Northern Ireland is separated from GB by a body of water there is the potential for this proposed export ban to cause greater disruption to the beef and sheep industries in NI than any other region of the UK.
It said that it is worth noting that travel times between NI and GB are short in comparison to trade from GB to the EU.
It also noted that Northern Ireland is also in the unique position of being the only part of the UK to have a land border with another EU member state which facilitates much shorter transport times.
During 2017 3,463 cattle were exported out of NI for direct slaughter in GB. This figure has gradually been declining in recent years as the differential in deadweight prices has narrowed between the regions however the live trade of cattle from NI to GB for direct slaughter remains an important outlet for NI beef producers.
In 2013, when the price differential made it more financially viable to export cattle from NI to GB for direct slaughter, 15,172 cattle were exported.
In December 2013 LMC published a report into regional disparities in deadweight cattle prices:
Understanding the NI/GB price differential. One of the key recommendations of this report to help address the differential was reducing barriers to the live export trade with GB, particularly at times of strong supplies in NI and when the price differential exceeded transport costs.
Cattle are also exported from NI to ROI for direct slaughter and this has provided another important outlet for NI beef producers.
During 2017 8,915 cattle were exported from NI to ROI for direct slaughter. As with the trade between NI and GB the volume of this cattle trade is driven by a price differential. Any ban or disruption to the live export of cattle out of NI will act as a barrier to trade and be detrimental for NI beef producers.
Any changes to current legislation could also negatively influence NI beef processors as it could impact their ability to import cattle for direct slaughter from both GB and ROI. During 2017 6,654 cattle were imported from GB for direct slaughter in local plants with a further 11,188 cattle imported from ROI.
As with the live export trade the level of the live import trade is dictated by supply and demand situations and exchange rates and can therefore vary considerably from year to year. It does however provide a valuable source of cattle for local processors.
Any changes to animal welfare legislation that impacts the import or export of live cattle for direct slaughter could also potentially impact the import and export of cattle for further breeding and production. During 2017 33,162 cattle were exported out of NI for further breeding and production.
Approximately a third of these animals were destined for GB or ROI with the remaining balance, primarily dairy origin calves, destined for the continent. In addition to this NI imported 19,342 cattle for further production on local farms during 2017.
The potential for changes to export legislation also has the potential to seriously impact the NI sheep sector as approximately half of NI lambs/hoggets produced in the region are exported to ROI for direct slaughter. During 2017 402,917 sheep went from NI to ROI for direct slaughter with a further 77,615 sheep exported from NI to ROI for further breeding and production.
GB also acts as an important outlet for the NI sheep sector with 54,781 sheep transported across the Irish Sea during 2017 for further breeding and production. This is an important outlet for cull ewes in particular for which there is limited demand in local plants.
The LMC said while it is important that the UK remains a world leader in the welfare of animals during transport it is vital that any changes to current legislation are designed and implemented in a way which does not disrupt or inhibit trade between NI and GB or the current trade between NI and ROI.
“Any changes to current levels of trade could negatively impact beef and lamb producers and processors to a much greater degree than their counterparts in mainland UK,” it said.