With reference to The Scottish Farmer last week (October 2 issue), I read with interest that the English NFU had published guidance on animal welfare during transport.

It was back in 2016 that the EU commissioned species specific guidance for transporting farm animals and as someone who graduated from local livestock transport to the larger long distance transport some 30 years ago, I was privileged to be asked to bring my experience to the table when this was written.

Read more: New guidance on animal welfare during transport

With proposed changes to existing legislation regarding the welfare of animals in transport, it might be worth adding a few words on what central government has in mind regarding the current legislation. A consultation was launched earlier this year and back in August Defra published its intentions regarding their call to answer some specific questions on the subject.

It has stated that it has received more than 11,000 responses to the consultation and that two-thirds of those were identical coming from the RSPCA and its supporters, who campaigned for much tighter regulations on animal transport based on perceived and emotional conceptions based on human behaviour, without having regard to the science upon which existing regulations are based.

In my eyes, these should have been seen as one response that has been endorsed by others and not as 7445 responses listed in the Defra publication, leading me to suppose that Defra itself is biased, rather than subjective by pandering to calls from the so-called animal rights brigade.

If only the individual responses, plus each of the three copied responses were considered then, I think opinion would be more evenly balanced on where improvements to animal welfare during transport can be made and would be backed up by scientific fact rather emotional reactions.

Industries affected cannot afford to gold plate existing rules merely for the sake of it, before introducing costly new rules there has to be tangible benefit for the animals being transported.

Defra stated that in the consultation farmers, who have practical experience in transporting animals, raised concerns as to whether journey times where long enough, whereas responses from 'welfare organisations' wanted to reduce journey times.

That would suggest to me that the 'welfare' organisations had little understanding how a journey is timed and neither do they understand the logistics involved in moving sheep and cattle from the north of Scotland to the south at this time of year, or the reasons why it happens.

The further north you go, the shorter the growing season and from time immemorial cattle and sheep have migrated south in late summer and early autumn as the grass dies back and loses its ability to sustain livestock.

Right across the animal kingdom, wild animals and birds migrate to find food suitable to ensure their species are able to breed successfully.

To its credit, Defra had taken on board that preventing a ro-ro ferry carrying animals in a force six gale or above is a blunt instrument and conceded that the ship’s captain will assess the situation before accepting animals onto his boat prior to sailing during bad weather.

However, there are two main areas of concern that will affect every farmer who moves livestock should these proposals be introduced. Firstly, the headroom proposal, especially for sheep and, secondl,y the tightening of rules on moving animals in extreme temperatures.

Read more: Scottish livestock transport – don't try to fix what isn't broken

Since I was first asked to become involved in talking to the authorities on transport legislation back in 1996, during the intervening years I had come to know and respect several researchers from Cambridge University, Bristol University, the now defunct ADAS and SRUC. During that time, none had expressed a concern over ventilation in relation to deck height.

The proposal requiring a full eight inches of headroom above the animal's head in the case of sheep and cattle to allow adequate ventilation has never been a problem encountered in my career as a livestock driver.

In the early 1990s, ADAS did have a vehicle especially constructed to measure air flow in animal transport vehicles and from my conversations with the man charged with conducting the research, deck heights were never mentioned as a factor. Therefore, I fail to see what science is available to say that this would actually be an improvement to the welfare of animals in transit.

Over the last 30 years, since I first moved up to driving four-deck sheep lorries and two-deck cattle lorries, it has to be said that mortality during transport reduced greatly, aided by hauliers investing eye-watering sums of money in the new technology introduced in making these specialist vehicles, along with better training for drivers.

Read more: Farmers must be heard on livestock transport law

During my 30 years’ experience of driving such vehicles, I would challenge anyone to attribute animal mortality on any livestock vehicle to poor ventilation associated with a lack of headroom. I am of the opinion that it would be folly to increase deck heights by 22% to resolve a problem that only exists in the minds of people who clearly have no practical experience in doing the job.

It will not be possible in the majority of cases to modernise the UK’s fleet of larger multi-deck vehicles. Phasing out vehicles that don’t provide eight inches of clearance from the head is going to greatly increasing the number of specialist vehicles on our roads.

It also begs the question, where are we going to find the extra drivers with the necessary qualifications to do what at the end of the day is a very dirty job. Farmers moving sheep to market, certainly over 50km, should be aware that the trailer they currently tow behind a pick-up will only be able to carry a single deck of sheep if these proposals are implemented.

The problem doesn’t stop there, there are a few abattoirs which, to maintain throughput and optimise labour, have vehicles queuing to unload their animals. In some cases, I have to say the time spent in these queues is unacceptable both in terms of animal welfare and in terms of the hours a driver is allowed to legally work.

Increasing the number of vehicles by perhaps 60% would only exacerbate this problem at abattoirs, where facilities might also need to improve. High quality facilities that drivers want to use for the rapid cleansing of vehicles and facilities for the welfare of those drivers also need to improve.

The other area of major concern is banning livestock moving over eight hours when the temperature drops below freezing. Again, this measure alone could well inhibit the ability of abattoirs to plan journeys and receive animals during the long winter months which, in turn, will either create shortages in the shops, or lead to supermarkets and meat packers deserting home produced food for imported meat.

Australia, who we have just signed a trade deal with, have no compunction against transporting sheep in high temperatures. The Australians are aware that when man first domesticated sheep 17,000 years ago, he found these animals in the desert. The wool they grow on their backs not only keeps them warm in cold weather but its insulating properties also provide protection from the heat. Only newly shorn sheep and small lambs who have not developed a fleece need to be afforded protection from prolonged heat.

In recent times, the 'Beast from the East' in 2018 and the winter of 2010, saw prolonged periods where the temperature dropped to sub-zero figures for long periods. If we are not able to transport animals during these periods of cold weather, we will see the current stated problems of the pig sector regarding getting their animals killed while in prime condition extend across the whole livestock sector in Britain.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that finishing livestock during the winter months may well become untenable in large parts of the UK in years to come should these changes be introduced.

As things stand, livestock drivers are required to adhere to three sets of legislation, all of which have a bearing on the time they are permitted to work, none of these are integrated, so planning ones’ day’s work involves a fair amount of juggling to stay within the law.

Defra stated that it is keen to work with industry before amending existing legislation regarding the welfare of animals in transport. In my mind, it is imperative that the organisations representing the farming industry, the haulage industry and the abattoir sector ensure that, at any meetings, they take along with them people who have practical experience and a full understanding of all sets of legislation. And, they need to be articulate in expressing a genuine opinion on what is workable and what is not.

None in the food chain can afford the cost of gold-plating existing legislation just for the sake of it. There really does need to be tangible benefit to animal welfare before we consider accepting any changes to what is already a complex set of rules.

* Hamish Waugh is a respected sheep farmer from the Scottish Borders and a former livestock lorry driver.