The Scottish Farmer:

THE TRANSPORTATION of live animals for fattening and slaughter has sparked serious debate over the years and came under the spot light at the beginning of the year, when Defra secretary, Michael Gove, proposed a potential ban post-Brexit.

The mainstream media has played an often-destructive role in portraying images of animals travelling in cramped conditions for long durations of time, which can lead to uproar by animal activists and the public.

These reports, albeit on occasion highlighting individual cases of animal welfare neglect – on the whole have branded the farming industry with one broad brush and failed to look at the advancements in animal welfare in transit, and to highlight the necessity for certain journeys for the survival of the industry.

During a recent visit to Orkney, The Scottish Farmer met some of the farmers who sell their cattle as stores in the local mart, to the mainland via Aberdeen and followed the journey of their cattle through the process from arriving at the auction mart, right through to their arrival via an overnight ferry from Kirkwall.

Since the closure of Orkney’s abattoir in January, all cattle leaving the island are transported live, though most are stores for further fattening, which makes this ferry route of paramount importance to the whole rural community.

The Scottish Farmer:

Local Orcadian farmer Paul Ross, Sandwick

On the trail of Orkney's gold

At 0630 on Monday morning, we met farmer Paul Ross, from Sandwick, who was dropping off six of his cattle at Orkney Auction Mart.

“This traditionally is the time of year where the majority of the cattle leave Orkney, farmers will keep them till they’re 18-months-old and then most will be sold at auction to the mainland,” explained Paul. “The cattle I’ve just dropped off will be sold later today before they head south on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen this evening.

“The transport system we have now is state-of-the-art, the animals travel well and they do a good job. Transport links have improved in recent years, there are more frequent ferries than there were in the past – certainly for livestock movement – and altogether the standards of travel are really good.”

How important is this vital ferry link: “It is vitally important! The whole of the economy in Orkney revolves around livestock farming particularly beef and without this route to get the cattle to Aberdeen we are done ... close the doors,” he warned.

Around 80-90% of cattle leaving Orkney are sold as store and since the sudden closure of Orkney’s only abattoir in January, this year, there is no longer an option for livestock to be slaughtered locally.

“We don’t have an abattoir up here now, which has made life difficult for the finishers, so everything has to be shipped off live. So, without transport, we might as well give up,” stressed another local farmer, Alistair Watson, who looks after 120 beef cows and 300 sheep near Kirkwall.

Could micro or mobile abattoirs serve the local islands? “We have a good brand up here – Orkney beef and lamb and Orkney food and drink push that a lot,” he responded. “However, with the lack of an abattoir, animals need to leave the island to be slaughtered and butchers are having to bring back their carcases to the island to serve local hotels and butchery businesses.

“If we could get everything killed and processed up here it would make life easier for them, as well as helping that brand as there is less transport involved for that finished animal.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Alistair Watson farms in Kirkwall, Orkney

Transporting live animals is key to the future survival of the farming industry on Orkney, so animal welfare is at the forefront of all transit decisions. “We have always been aware of the need to have the highest animal welfare standards as there is no point having a high-quality product if you can’t back it up with good ethical practice,” explained Liam McArthur, the MSP for Orkney.

He commended the advancements shipment business, Northlink, had made to its livestock service in recent years and the valuable impact it has had on the condition of the animals as well as upholding the reputation of Orkney as a quality producer

“Attention to welfare standards was integral in the development of the cassette system which has been taken forward by Northlink over the last decade and it has seen us achieve those high standards that the public expect and which farmers are demanding of the transport providers as well,” he continued.

“Transporting live animals is an essential part of the farming business! Yes, we need to be killing animals as near to where they are raised, but store cattle are an integral part of our agricultural system and therefore by maintaining those high welfare standards, we need to ensure that that live transport must continue to take place,” he stressed.

The Scottish Farmer:

Many livestock are sold via the Orkney Auction Mart as stores to be transported via Aberdeen

In 2017, a total of 26,000 cattle and 138,000 sheep were transported by Northlink off the islands of Orkney and Shetland to the mainland. That number alone speaks volumes as to the importance of this service to the farming community and wider economies of all the islands, and to the north-east of Scotland.

High welfare shipping standards

On a busy Monday in September, there are often two livestock shipments a day and during our visit, two loads of livestock were ferried from Kirkwall to Aberdeen via Northlink, totalling 1000 head.

Orkney Auction Mart sits within walking distance of the ferry terminal in Kirkwall, making a swift and short journey from the sale ring to the lairage, where animals are sorted in to livestock containers before travelling.

The freight manager for Orkney, Kris Bevan, gave us a tour of Northlink’s lairage facility and a behind the scenes look at the ship itself and the high-quality livestock containers used in transit. “Part of my role is ensuring we adhere to all animal welfare and transport regulations and making sure that livestock containers are moved around the network for shipment of stock,” explained Mr Bevan.

The Scottish Farmer:

High spec livestock containers designed with animal welfare in mind. They carry hay racks, water dispensers and inspection lights to allow for regular checks

The aluminium containers are built by James Stewart, of Stewart Agricultural, in Inverurie, and were brought in to use in 2008 following a change in emphasis to improve welfare for livestock in transit. Northlink have 48 containers which sit at 12m in length and carry around 20 store cattle each, depending on size. There are also 6m and 2m smaller containers available if required.

“These stocking densities have been prescribed to us since their introduction in 2008. It offers way more flexibility to farmers than previously used livestock vessels, which involved six or seven decks marked off for livestock,” he continued. “Everyone in the industry agrees that the quality of the containers has made a huge difference to their travel and we see that in the condition of the beasts when they come off the other end.”

The containers include hay racks to provide the animals with feed, water nozzles to provide water during voyage, but also inspection lights to enable checks to be made during the trip. There is also a hospital pen, so a specific animal can be separated if required.

The Scottish Farmer:

Kris Bevan, Freight Manager for Northlink Ferries

"Animal welfare is of paramount importance to our whole operation,” said Mr Bevan. “We regularly have Orkney Islands Council’s animal welfare officer here at the lairage overseeing stock but equally we have Aberdeen City Council meet us on a Tuesday morning to inspect animals being discharged.

"We are extremely strict on our bio-security – after every shipment of stock, the lairage will be washed down and at the Aberdeen end the containers are all washed out and disinfected before being brought back to Orkney for the next shipment,” concluded Kris.

With all the containers safely on board, we joined the ship to accompany the livestock on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen. With an early departure due to a smooth loading operation, the captain set off early and the 10-hour journey began.

The Scottish Farmer:

The Northlink ferry arrives at Kirkwall ferry terminal ahead of transporting livestock on the overnight journey to Aberdeen

The ferry delivers

On arrival in Aberdeen, there was a swift exit of livestock containers as we met Alan Cummings, the livestock supervisor of the Aberdeen lairage and he and another supervisor carefully shifted all the cattle off the containers and in to respective pens using the clear buyer's marks on the animal’s backs.

“Everything that comes in to the lairage off the boats has to go out the same day,” he explained. “The animals are marked by their buyer's mark and are divided in to pens before being picked up by various hauliers to be transported to their new homes.”

The animals travelled well and seemed energised and alert on arrival, evident by the swift manner Alan had to assert on some of the friskier beasts. He used a cattle prod to direct them in to their pens which proved to be an absolute necessity: “These prods are the only protection we’ve got. We can be looking after anything from up to 750 cattle or 3500 sheep at any one time in the lairage.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Livestock arrive in Aberdeen lairage having completed a successful 10-hour overnight journey from Kirkwall, Orkney

As livestock shifting continued, at Northlink's base at Jamieson’s Quay, we met with managing director, Stuart Garrett. He told us: “We are proud to be part of a tight supply chain and like to think that through our service we help to facilitate from farm to fork."

On the hot topic of Michael Gove’s proposal earlier in the year to look at a future ban on the transportation of live animals and how this would hamper a rural community like Orkney, he added: “Agriculture is very much the powerhouse of Orkney and it also underpins the economy of the North-east, as beasts are brought here for fattening.

“We understand the importance of the route between Kirkwall and Aberdeen and how detrimental it would be to the farming community if we were to see a future ban of live animal exports.

“However, as debates around transit time are brought in to public view, we want to make it clear that the way we travel animals in carefully designed livestock containers doesn’t count as official travel time under welfare rules compared to those services who ferry livestock via road trailers on board,” he stated.

“Animal welfare is of the utmost importance to our whole process and as well as regular car deck inspections during travel, we are subject to visits from an animal livestock officer at any point during the day and we ensure our staff receive animal welfare training.

“We have a really strong relationship with our customers and with the agricultural industry, communicating with stakeholders on a daily basis,” he assured me. “We meet regularly with NFUS in Shetland and Orkney to get a pulse check on the industry and to determine how livestock numbers are looking; we want to know that if there is a step change in the industry, we are aware of it before it happens,” he concluded.

The vagaries of weather

Volatile weather patterns associated with the north coast of Scotland presents its own challenges to crews involved in transporting livestock and other goods off the islands.

With an abundance of experience behind the helm, Captain Stuart McCallum, the marine manager for Northlink, explained how the ultimate decision to travel remains with the captain. “It is always at the discretion of the captain if he/she decides if it is safe to travel and part of my job now is to make sure the captains are given regular updates of weather patterns particularly with due consideration to wind speed and direction,” he said.

“Based on this information, they can then decide whether it is safe to carry livestock. Our crew are highly experienced and aware of the responsibility which comes with ferrying livestock between the islands and mainland and their welfare is always at the forefront of any decisions we make before and during travel,” stressed Captain McCallum.

Our comment:

It has been made abundantly clear by all those involved with the agricultural industry in Orkney that supporting the movement of livestock off the island via the Northlink ferry route is essential for the future survival of the rural community.

We will soon move in to a post-Brexit era where animal welfare practice becomes of increasing interest to the public domain and Scottish farming practices are laid bare for all to see. When questions arise over transportation of livestock for fattening or slaughter purposes, it is the responsibility of the media to fairly and accurately report on livestock journeys.

Sensationalist reporting serves only to deliver a collateral blow to those communities who rely entirely on a quality ferry system, which if restricted, could almost lead to the closure of an entire industry and the infrastructure that goes with it.