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Why the upcoming live export ban can help us re-examine our relationship with farm animals

I’m haunted by the smell that comes off an export truck, and the calls of the animals inside which can still be heard as the ship leaves the port and sails into the distance. Every time I talk about the live exports of animals, that smell comes back to me.

I’m haunted by the sight of the eyes of young calves pulled from their mother’s too early and now peeking through the bars of the truck, or mouthing at the metal as though trying to find comfort.

And I’m haunted by the sight of sheep packed too closely into trucks, their legs poking through the gaps in the side of the lorries and their wide-eyed fear visible through the slats as the lorries pull into the port, and prepare for a long journey abroad for further fattening and slaughter.

Throughout my life, I have campaigned to see a ban on live exports - from demonstrating outside Parliament, to witnessing the cruel export of animals at ports, and so news that our decision-makers have finally voted to ban this spectre makes this a special day for me personally as well as professionally.

I’m so glad that those sights and sounds have been consigned to history where they belong.

For over 50 years, the RSPCA and other organisations have called for an end to live exports. I’ve watched grainy footage from the 70s of RSPCA protestors handing out leaflets on the issue, heard stories from former Special Operations Unit (SOU) officers of investigations tracking and trailing lorries from England to Europe, and I’ve stood side by side with campaigners as we passionately fight for this trade to end.

For over 50 years, the RSPCA and other organisations have called for an end to live exports. Quote

It’s been a long journey to get where we are now - but we should all be thrilled that those cruel and gruelling journeys are finally coming to an end.

Since the 1960s, there have been up to 40 million sheep, calves and pigs exported abroad on journeys that could last over 100 hours in poor and cramped conditions. It’s a shocking figure - and means on average 82 animals have experienced these gruelling journeys every single hour.

Thankfully, that is over now - and this ban is a cause for celebration and shows the power of public action. This is why we’ve launched our For Every Kind campaign to inspire the public to carry out a million acts of kindness to help even more animals.

And it also offers an opportunity to re-examine our wider relationship with animals. Packing live, sentient beings into trucks without food or water and shipping them on long journeys across the seas, purely for profit and only to slaughter them at the end, is a typical example of treating animals as commodities. An animal should never be treated in the same way as a shipment of canned goods or flat-packed furniture. Especially when there is such a clear alternative to slaughter the animal close to home, and export the meat instead.

The campaign against live exports has had strong public support, fuelled by the sight of trucks going down the motorway crammed full of animals - making their plight clear for anyone to see. But a lot of farmed animal welfare issues take place behind closed doors, such as outdated practices like keeping hens or pigs in cages, or breeding ‘frankenchickens’ which grow so fast they can often struggle to stand, develop heart defects and even die. But just because these things are out of sight - they shouldn’t be out of mind.

These realities of some of these poor farming practices are rarely seen by the public and so, sadly, they continue. A billion chickens are farmed each year for meat and 90% of those are fast-growing chickens with severe health and welfare issues - but most people will never see a live broiler chicken. They will never make the connection between a fattened bird with laboured breathing, struggling to get to their feet, with the roast chicken they put on their dinner plates.

But we can all do more to tune in to the realities of our food system - its unsustainability, the environmental impact, and the suffering often involved. If the live exports ban has taught us anything, it’s that together we can make real, progressive change happen, and so we can now come together as a nation of animal lovers to demand a higher welfare, more sustainable farming future where the lives of each sentient animal involved, from cows to sheep, pigs, chickens, hens, ducks, goats and more, truly matters.

We need to keep the momentum up. The UK Government has recently launched a consultation on whether animal products bought in our supermarkets should be labelled with information about how the animal lived and was cared for - a potentially wonderful step forward for animal welfare, and a chance for people to make a difference to animals’ lives with every food choice they make. It's time we proved we really are for every kind.

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Emma Slawinski is Director of Policy, Prevention and Campaigns at the RSPCA.

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