Concern for the decline in small abattoirs has been pushed up the political agenda over the past three years, following our campaign and the efforts of an impressive coalition of people, from government bodies, Peers and MPS to NGOs, farmers and abattoir owners themselves. All have given voice to the small abattoir sector, highlighting the problems they face and calling for solutions.

This action is now culminating in the formation of a small abattoir sector group, which is being created with a group of founding members, including the Sustainable Food Trust, All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, National Craft Butchers, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England and the Prince’s Countryside Fund. The mission statement of the group is that it will ‘be made up of influential organisations and operators to advise Government on behalf of the sector on strategically important issues and standards affecting local food production and the role of small abattoirs within that system.’ This group will be instrumental in bringing issues to the attention of government and its formation comes at a critical time.

As we head into 2021, we face a number of challenges. Not least will be the impact of Brexit which, as our policy director Richard Young explained in his analysis of Defra’s future farming policy, could see the loss of many of the UK’s smaller and medium sized livestock farms. In 2018, lowland grazing livestock farms made an average profit of just £15,500 with 94% of this coming from direct subsidies. With the phasing out of basic payments, farmers will need to find ways to add value to their products in order to survive.

This is where local abattoirs are so critical, allowing farmers to make at least twice as much as they would if animals were sold at market or into the supermarket supply chain. In fact, the very farming systems we should be supporting for the benefit of our health and the environment – less intensive, pasture-fed, rare and native breeds, integrated and mixed farming systems – could not exist without the adequate services of local abattoirs.

Combine this need with the announcement this week of Government plans to ban exports of livestock for fattening and slaughter, as well as limit the length of time animals can travel within the UK, and you would expect a national network of local abattoirs to be a priority. However, in answering to the EFRA Committee this week, Secretary of State George Eustice, said, ‘We think the proposals we are consulting on sit fine within the existing network of abattoirs that we have.’

Could this be because the proposed maximum journey times will in fact change little for the UK, given they will be up to 21 hours for cattle and sheep (or 29 and 48 hours respectively, with permission from the APHA) and 18 hours for pigs? To put that into perspective, Compassion in World Farming recommends journeys should be no more than 8 hours.

While we strongly welcome a ban on live exports, when it comes to internal transportation, these revised distances are unlikely to impact existing journeys made by livestock for supermarket supply chains. This seems like political window dressing rather than a serious policy change and appears not to live up to the Government’s own desire to see animals slaughtered ‘close to the point of production’. And for a growing body of consumers who care about animal welfare and the environment, this simply won’t be good enough.

The government’s analysis of slaughterhouse capacity must surely relate to large abattoirs and supermarket supply chains, rather than smaller ‘private kill’ facilities that serve farms selling direct to consumers. It has been well-documented that small local abattoirs have faced significant problems due to lack of funding and the burden of regulation, causing increasing numbers of them to go out of business in recent years, with a loss of over a third in the past decade alone.

More and more farmers are voicing concern about this dwindling number, limited services and the distances they now must travel to slaughter. Defra’s analysis of abattoir provision doesn’t seem to have taken into account the economics, for producers with farm shops and other direct sales, of transporting live animals and carcasses greater distances. Small producers often only need to slaughter a few animals at a time and the transport costs can make this unviable if there is no abattoir nearby. It also doesn’t seem to take into account that many existing small abattoirs often cannot meet the demand for their services and many must turn customers away, particularly at busy times of year such as during December. This is increasingly leaving farmers with nowhere to turn, facing the prospect of going out of business.

Yet it should be these sorts of systems – local, sustainable, transparent – that are supported by government as customers demand greater traceability, shorter food miles and higher animal welfare.

Abattoir owners themselves are working hard to meet demand as much as they can and adapt to a rapidly changing world. While farmers are also seeking innovative solutions, such as Fir Farm in Gloucestershire whose mobile abattoir will soon enable on-farm slaughter.

But if we really want to see a diverse and sustainable agriculture in the UK, delivering the various public goods that are considered desirable (and fundable) by government, now is the time for Government to step up and support the infrastructure that enables this. Investing in existing abattoirs so they can modernise and thrive, and enabling new abattoirs (including mobile and ‘pop-up’ ones) to be established, will be the only way to meaningfully reduce journey times, improve welfare and ensure Brexit doesn’t lay waste to the UK’s sustainable livestock farms.

As part of the new sector group we will be responding to the Government’s consultation on improvements to animal welfare in transport and will provide further updates in due course.

If you would like to find out more about these issues, join us at 5 pm on 12th January for our panel at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. ‘Making Small Abattoirs Sustainable’ will be chaired by our CEO Patrick Holden and will feature talks from Emily Miles, CEO of the Food Standards Agency, Marisa Heath, Coordinator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, Will Harris, owner and farmer at White Oak Pastures and Sara Grady and Alice Robinson from Grady + Robinson, a sustainable leather project.

Photograph: Angus D. Birditt

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