Memories – a personal experience.
Many years back; 20 or more; the live animal export trade from the UK via English ports such as Dover, was at its peak. I used to travel down to Dover and other ports several times a week and do (undercover) monitoring of the (live animal export) trade. There were several of us at Dover and we all got together to wait for the livestock truck carrying ship(s) to arrive at the harbour late in the evening. They were special ships which had to be chartered because we had made some massive wins in getting the normal ferry companies to stop taking live animals to the continent. Animal transporters were banned from normal passenger ferries – people did not want to share their holiday crossing experience with animals going to their deaths; so those same people spoke out and the ferry companies buckled. That was a big win; but the trade did not stop entirely. The industry was forced to charter its own ships to take the trucks; along with the financial overheads that came with it.
The special (livestock transporter) boats usually arrived late in the evening; like 11pm or midnight. From our vantage points on the cliffs, we watched them arrive a few miles off the harbour at a section of the English Channel which is known as ‘The Downs’. From there they had to get a pilot to bring their ship into the harbour; that was fine with us – ship charter; paying for a pilot etc; all extra costs to the industry involved with live animals.
I took these following photos many years ago – some time on the odd occasion when the livestock ships had no choice but to dock during the daytime. In both you can clearly see the livestock transporters. This operation was normally undertaken under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night – away from the eyes of the public.
So late at night we (campaigners) congregated in a region up on the famous Dover White Cliffs which overlooked the harbour; at a place known as ‘Langdon’. We watched the ship come into the harbour under pilot control until it berthed at the far end (left pier) of the harbour. You can see the kind of view we had from the cliffs in this video:
On the left hand side of this video you can see the Eastern arm at which the ship photos above were taken.
At night, with all the lights in the harbour, it was impressive to say the least. A sort of ‘Close Encounters’ situation. Once the ship had docked on its usual left hand pier; we then had to hang around and wait for the rear doors on the ship to open and the ramp be lowered. Then was the first real signs of the nights trade for us – how many empty livestock trucks were going to discharge from the ship and make their way up to the local lairages to collect the animals; which had been specially brought down to these farms ready for export. Usually, most nights, we counted somewhere between 6 and 9; sometimes more, sometimes less.
One of the local farms (or ‘lairages’) where the animals were kept ready for export was also operating a business on the side as a caravan park. So, what do you do in such situations ? – you buy a caravan and place it in the farm caravan park; right next to the old pathway which the trucks used to get down to the animals sheds. With people there having a great nights caravanning !; and the use of mobile phones and a kettle for a cup of tea ; we could keep each other informed exactly of the trucks, their registration numbers; haulier, and type of animals they were carrying. Observers literally within a few feet of the transporters as they arrived empty, and left loaded with animals. It was a well organised arrangement; livestock trucks monitored from the minute they arrived at the harbour on the ship; all the way up to collect the animals at the lairage; and then still monitored at all times on the to their return to the harbour; where they were always greeted by a ‘reception group’ even at 2 or 3 in the early hours of the morning; who had been informed who exactly was on their way down. We never let up; they were monitored and tracked from the moment they arrived until the moment they left. Our system was good; very good.
Eventually, and to get a good view of the loading of the trucks onto the ship, we returned from our reception duties at the docks to Langdon up on the cliffs. Up there it was wild, dark and bleak; with the forever Dover cold wind blowing in off the English Channel. We kicked around; talked, drank hot tea and waited for all the trucks to load back onto the ship ready to head over to France and god knows where else. Sometimes the odd ‘lady of the night’ would appear and offer her services to some of the blokes. They were never taken up as we were decent folk and there was much more important things to do !
The whole exercise from unloading the empties off the ship, to driving up to the lairages, loading, and then getting back to the harbour to load the full animal transporters that had come back from the lairage usually took about 3-4 hours. It was always in the darkest of dark times of the night; the trade did not want to be seen by the general public – but they were; we watched their every move; and we always followed up with reports and publicity on what was happening in those ‘dark hours’.
Once all the full livestock trucks had loaded back onto the same ship that they arrived on; we sat and watched as the rear ramp and doors closed up; the signal that the ship was ready to leave the harbour once again with all the innocents on their final trip to god knows where.
Watching the loaded ship sail out of the harbour destined for France with what, 6, 8, 10 animal transporters loaded was always a difficult time for me personally. We had done everything we wanted to do each night; gathered the information and let the industry know that even at that time we were around; but for me also, we had failed the animals by allowing them to sail away to their deaths. Saving and stopping all the trucks was impossible; we knew it; but witnessing the situation always made you feel like you had let the animals down by not saving them. I was quite a big ‘U2’ fan at the time; and I always sat in my car up on the cliffs and played ‘Exit’ from the ‘Joshua Tree’ album – the haunting Bass and a time of real despair; as I watched the ship sail out of the harbour with its cargo of death. The music; the experience yet again; everything seemed to come together at that moment in time.
Music has a real power – often to be the right track at the right time to hold memories –‘Exit’ was right for the betrayal of animals that I witnessed so regularly at those cold, dark; upsetting nights at the docks. Even now; 20+ years later, that track (Exit) always takes me back to those cold and windy nights up on the cliffs watching the livestock carrier departing for France. That track always brings back that situation to me of being there and witnessing the suffering for a few pennies more. Sometimes I would stay on longer and watch – from high on the cliffs you could watch the ship sail across most of the Channel almost until it had arrived in Calais; what, some 23 miles away. Sad times, bad times, but in the end we stopped it completely at Dover. It felt good to be of the crew that did that !
In the UK people have always detested the live animal export trade. Part of our national way towards being an animal welfare nation I guess. Here are a few scenes from around Dover in the past of what good, decent folk will do to stop animal abuse with the animal exports:
For Jill – never forgotten: