Fears for Northern Ireland loophole as UK prepares to ban live animal export

Three cows with tags in their ears, photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash
Three cows with tags in their ears, photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

As the United Kingdom (UK) government prepares to ban the export of live animals, animal welfare organizations fear that Northern Ireland could present a loophole for farmers and traders seeking to move animals from England, Scotland and Wales to the rest of Europe. 

The proposed UK ban on live animal exports for slaughter, and fattening ahead of slaughter, is to be legalized by the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill that is currently on its way through the UK Parliament.

The ban is expected to come into force in England, Wales and Scotland – collectively known as Great Britain – early next year. 

In the UK-ruled Northern Ireland, however, no legislation for a ban appears to be on the horizon.

Questions sent to the Northern Irish agriculture ministry, DAERA, asking whether a similar ban on live animal exports would be imposed, were not answered, and animal welfare organizations have voiced a series of concerns about the potential live export loophole this presents.

Transport hub
The loophole exists because animal movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are not considered exports, because the animals remain within the UK. 

Once in Northern Ireland, it is then possible that animals could move relatively freely into the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and beyond into the wider European Union.

“The [UK] Bill banning live exports currently before the Westminster Parliament applies to exports from England, Wales and Scotland,” said Peter Stevenson, an animal welfare lawyer with Compassion in World Farming. 

“But the law does not apply to Northern Ireland,” thanks to the post-Brexit agreement known as the Northern Irish Protocol. 

He said the protocol prohibits export restrictions between Northern Ireland and the EU, allowing for the free movement of goods, services, people, and live animals.

The lack of restrictions on Northern Irish exports could mean “a transport hub will emerge in Northern Ireland, that will continue to legally export live animals” from the UK to Europe and overseas, said Martina Stephany, farm animal director at animal welfare organization Four Paws.

Live animal export loopholes
Stephany further warned that similar live export loopholes were already developing in Germany after certain states issued export bans and others did not.

“After individual federal states [in Germany] had issued export bans, the transports simply continued via other federal states or even other member states such as Hungary,” she said.

The best way to prevent both the German and Northern Irish loopholes, Stephany said, is for the EU to “urgently” pass legislation banning live animal exports.

Changing eartags on animals
The potential for Northern Ireland to become a live export loophole is “definitely a concern,” said Caroline Rowley, founder of Irish animal welfare organization Ethical Farming Ireland.

“The ferry companies from Scotland to Northern Ireland don’t take livestock for fattening or slaughter, but there are ways around that,” she said. 

“For example, livestock could be transported from Cairnryan [in Scotland] to Larne [in Northern Ireland] supposedly for breeding but then after a short resting period continue the journey through Ireland and on to continental Europe,” Rowley said.

Nicola Glen of animal welfare organization Eyes On Animals expressed similar concerns adding that once the animals arrive in Northern Ireland, their “eartags can be changed to NI [Northern Irish] tags after only a couple of days [meaning] they could journey on through the Republic and onto the continent.”

In a UK government press release issued 18 August, both the UK Environment Secretary, George Eustice, and the Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, spoke in support of new laws that would ban the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening and implement higher welfare standards for animals in transport.

In Scotland, a legal mechanism known as a Legislative Consent Memorandum (LCM) is expected to bring the UK government’s proposed ban on live animal exports before the Scottish Parliament at the end of the year. The LCM will then pass directly into law, implementing the ban on live exports, or a vote may be required.


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