ANIMAL welfare is of paramount importance and is given high priority by UK livestock markets, according to a survey by the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA).

Commissioned by the Livestock Auctioneers Association (LAA), in collaboration with the RSPCA, the independent survey covered a representative sample of 24 livestock markets across England and Wales, evaluating current welfare provisions, identifying any areas of concern and recommending future improvements.

The survey compared results to a similar Defra-funded study of 24 livestock markets by the HSA and the Royal Veterinary College between 2005 and 2007.

Key findings from the new survey include

* All markets surveyed were members of the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme

* All markets surveyed were working to an animal welfare policy and had supporting documents

* Further safeguards including CCTV, training and development have been introduced

* Major improvements and developments in desired features were recorded

* Animal welfare was found to be of paramount importance.

The report highlights the developments and improvements in management procedures, handling equipment and infrastructure which have taken place since the previous survey. It reports a 64 per cent increase in protection from jumping injuries for adult cattle in unloading pens, and 57 per cent for sheep in comparison to the 2005-7 figures. Similarly, protection increased at gateways (21 per cent cattle and 29 per cent sheep) and with general penning, with a 32 per cent increase for adult cattle and 46 per cent with sheep. More vehicle reception areas are escape proof for both adult cattle (18 per cent increase) and sheep (21 per cent).

Improvements were also recorded in the absence of bruising and contact points in unloading pens, gangways and grading/sorting/ID areas. This has included improvements to aspects relating to human safety, including raised platforms in cattle grading/weighing/ID sections, with gates controlled from above the animals, rather than at floor level. The presence of these features increased by 17 per cent.

Sheep facilities have improved with the addition of drafting gates, a 15 per cent increase, making sorting the animals easier and reducing the stress for both animals and staff.

Chris Dodds, LAA executive secretary, said the study demonstrated the high priority given to animal welfare and the safety and security of staff and visitors. “At a time when the entire livestock industry is facing false and misleading claims in terms of sustainability, traceability and welfare, we are pleased that this independent research demonstrates that we are maintaining best practice and enhancing quality and safety standards.

“We do not rest on our laurels, and continue to work with partners and other stakeholders to help develop and improve safety and welfare measures. This may be by means of new technology, new techniques or additional training support, but our commitment remains to make the livestock auction market the safest environment for both livestock and human welfare.”