Opinion: Mark Smith: Cruel and unjustified: the legal case against the Scottish Government that you might not have heard about
There’s an important case coming up at the Court of Session in the next few weeks, but when I phoned the Scottish Government to find out more, they told me it would be inappropriate to talk about it. I disagree. The fact that the case is happening, and the fact that the Government is defending it, is infuriating and depressing and we should definitely talk about it and I hope to God the Government loses.
The issue at the heart of the case is animal welfare, specifically the welfare of young calves, and it’s important because it raises several moral and political questions. First: how should we treat farm animals in Scotland? Second: do we want Scotland to have the highest standards because if we do, why is the Scottish Government allowing a practice that’s no longer happening in England? And third: will we learn lessons from Covid? Because in Scotland we still disrespect animals in ways that have spread disease in the past and could do so again in the future.
I have to say here that, until I started looking into this case, I hadn’t properly realised Scotland was still persisting with a practice that became such an infamous issue 30 years ago. You may remember it: in the 90s, half a million male dairy calves were being exported from the UK every year, mostly for veal, but the dairy industry eventually realised – thanks to a campaign against the practice – that their image was suffering and the number of exports dropped dramatically.
However, the trade does still continue and I’m sad to say that for the last three years the only place in Britain where it’s been happening is Scotland. Since 2017, more than 12,000 calves have been exported from Scotland to Spain where they are fattened for beef. The calves are usually taken from their mothers on their first day of life and loaded on to the trucks at two weeks old. Many other male calves are shot at birth (in the UK, about 95,000 a year).
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Ah but wasn’t there a whole scandal about this a couple of years ago and didn’t P&O say they would stop carrying calves from Scotland? True, but the Scottish Government remained supportive of live exports and, after P&O made their decision in 2018, the industry switched its tactics. So now, instead of going by boat from Cairnryan, the calves are driven to Ramsgate where a ship, chartered by the exporters, takes them to France and then by road to Spain.
Which is where the court case comes in. The petitioner in the case is Compassion in World Farming, the organisation that campaigns for better farming standards, and their argument is that, in allowing the export of calves to Spain, the Scottish Government is breaking the law. The Government disagrees and has appointed a QC to fight the case, although exactly what their defence will be we don’t yet know.
What the law says is that unweaned animals should not be transported for more than eight hours unless, after nine hours, they are given water and if necessary fed. Now as far as we know, after eight hours or so, the calves from Scotland are stopped at a motorway service station in Essex and the automatic watering system in the trucks is operated. But each truck is tightly packed with up to 250 calves and no one goes on board to check if all the calves take the water. Chances are many don’t.
As for feed, what calves of that age receive is milk or a milk replacement, but the trucks don’t have the facilities for that so for the entire journey to France (23 hours or so), they will not be fed. What the Government may argue – and it would be a pretty lowdown argument if they try it – is that it’s not necessary to feed the calves. But calves of that age feed at least twice a day (and if they’re with their mothers, a good deal more) and the schedule of documents sent to the Court of Session includes an unequivocal statement from Professor Donald Broom, the UK’s foremost authority on animal welfare: it is necessary to give milk or milk replacement to calves that have been transported for eight or nine hours.
Compassion in World Farming say the Scottish Government has also tried to argue – surprise, surprise – that the problem arises in England and when I got in touch with the Government, they said it would be inappropriate to comment while legal proceedings were ongoing. They did, however, say they were committed to consulting on the recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which includes a nine-hour limit on journeys for calves. “Our preferred policy intention,” said the spokesman, “is not to support unnecessary long journeys involved in the export of livestock.”
But a statement like that raises more questions than answers. First, why support exports anyway – the UK imports a lot of beef so why not use the male dairy calves for beef in this country? Secondly, even if you think live exports are a good idea, why fight a case over a time limit you say you support? And thirdly, is the fight really worth it? The calves being exported represent the rump of an industry that isn’t even economically significant any more. Do we really want to be the last place in Britain where this happens?
And perhaps the fact that the case is happening in the middle of a pandemic should also give the Government pause for thought. If you haven’t watched the recent webinar with the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall, I recommend it. She didn’t hold back. Humans have brought coronavirus on ourselves, she said, because of our disrespect for animals that have been pushed closer into contact with each other, and they’ve been pushed closer together in markets, on intensive farms, and in trucks parked up at motorway service stations in Essex.
So what happens now? The case against the Scottish Government is due to be heard on August 4th and campaigners on animal welfare will be keeping a close eye on it. There’s also an awareness day on live exports this Sunday. The aim, in the end, is to stop live exports all together and the hope is that the Scottish Government will show some sense. What we’re realising is it may take a judgment of the Court of Session to make that happen.
Info from CIWF: