Richard Kent is used to raising winners. At his horse rearing farm, stretching for 380 acres across the North Shropshire countryside, he tends to muscular stallions like the snowy white Almanaara, winner of races almost 4,000 miles away in the UAE.
He had been exporting up to 110 high-value racing horses he breeds to the EU each year. But in 2021 he sold just three to Ireland and none to France as the rising logistical costs of Brexit bit ferociously into his margins.
UK farmers who export live animals are facing significant financial losses as Brexit creates prohibitive administrative hurdles, one year on. UK exports of live animals generated more than £570m in 2019, with the bulk from horse exports for racing and sports, followed by livestock, namely poultry, then sheep, goats and pigs.
But Brexit-related border problems are reducing the movement of horses to the EU by 40% and harming the animals who face extended transport times – while the trade in most livestock animals has stopped entirely.
Some 90% of horse movements in the EU take place between France, the UK and Ireland, the three biggest racing countries in Europe, which employ more than 30,000 people. The industry is vital to Ireland, which in 2016 produced one-fifth of the top 100 rated horses, according to Deloitte.
For more than 40 years, the majority of horse movements in the EU took place between the three under a system called the “Tripartite Agreement”, allowing high-health horses to travel seamlessly between them.
“It’s causing a lot of unnecessary hassle, doing the paperwork is a nuisance and the ports at Ireland and France are a disaster,” Kent said.
He said breeders now need a vet to inspect horses two weeks in advance and on the day of travel, and fill out 11 documents which are then stamped eight or nine times by the relevant authorities. They must send a blood sample to a laboratory which can take 10 days to process – typically costing £300 per horse.
“It’s just totally unnecessary,” he said. “We’ve probably tested 100 horses in the last six weeks, and nothing has come up positive.” During transport, with lorries now required to be certified in the EU, producers have had to shift from transporting their own horses to hiring intermediaries, increasing the costs of a return trip even more, from £350 to £700 per horse, he said.
Kent has managed to compensate in part by selling some horses in the UK, where the market has proved exceptionally bullish recently, but cautions he will start struggling financially if the recent surge drops again.
The British market was strong this year as rearers turned inward and redirected sales domestically. Eva-Maria Broomer, executive director at British Breeding, says the “lockdown effect” of affluent Britons moving to the countryside and buying horses also created a boost, though she emphasised both of these factors were temporary.
“Anything that curtails international trade is really bad news for horse breeders,” she said. “It makes us much more vulnerable to the domestic market fluctuations.”
The welfare of horses is also a mounting concern. The animals suffer more as they endure longer trips without a break, standing for up to 23 hours straight, according to Kent. Before Brexit, during their transport between Ireland and France, horses were allowed to rest while in transit in the UK, but the administrative burden has made these stop-offs no longer feasible.
“A lot of horses will get travel sickness and die, some horses will take months to recover from it, some will never recover,” said Kent. “It’s not right, the welfare of horses has become very secondary to Brexit rules.”
Carron Nicol, 57, who started her business breeding foals and wild stallions when she was 18 years old, said Brexit is harming her horses too. Nicol and her son specialise in breeding sleek showjumping horses in their Warwickshire farm and still regularly compete themselves.
Nicol returned recently from a five-week trip where she led eight horses into a competition in Vejer de la Frontera in southern Spain. But one of her horses became sick with shipping fever after long border controls meant it had to stay standing for 22 hours straight.
“It’s terrible – it’s far, far too long for these horses to be in the lorries,” said Nicol. “It’s just unnecessary time for the animals to be on the lorry, due to unnecessary paperwork.”
Shipping fever is a non-infectious bacterial infection which affects horses’ lungs caused by standing too long in one position, resulting in high temperatures and shaking. It can lead to death if left untreated.
A parliamentary report in September found it’s also possible that thousands of horses are being smuggled out to the EU under the guise of racing animals, then sold for slaughter. Smugglers can typically pack 40 horses into a cramped box, transporting them to places where slaughter is cheaper – meaning one dealer alone can smuggle up to 2,000 horses out of the UK a year.
Although the practice is not illegal in the UK, the report urged the government to take advantage of greater regulatory freedom post-Brexit to push for more urgent action.
But the situation is even bleaker for farmers who rear livestock for breeding and slaughter. All exports of cattle, pig, goats, sheep and zoo animals have halted since the post-Brexit transition period ended in December 2020.
Live exports of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs will be banned under the new Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill which had its first reading in May, although no deadline is fixed as the bill is yet to have its third reading in the House of Commons.
These animal sales were worth “millions and millions” annually due to their high genetic value, according to John Royle, the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) chief livestock advisor.
One pedigree cow can sell for £5,000, while the royalties for the semen of one bull can be worth £70,000, he said.
“It’s frustrating for industry because we don’t feel that we’ve had enough help or support from the government,” he said. “Should it be for industry to have to invest in this, when in the grand scheme of things these are modest sums of money for the government?”
Transporting these animals to the EU requires a special Border Control Post (BCP) at the port of the receiving country, but none were established last year, making their export impossible.
The NFU and National Pig Association (NPA) say they are in talks with an unnamed private company to invest in the construction of a BCP at Calais, though the negotiators say this will not be ready until the first few months of this year at the very earliest.
The UK said it will not impose the same requirement for European exporters to clear BCPs at its border until March, which created a significant trade imbalance strongly favouring producers in the EU.
“It’s a bit of an unfair level playing field: Europe can get their animals in, but we can’t get our animals over there,” said Royle, adding that some breeders have told him they are being forced to wind down parts of their business.
Pig breeders are particularly affected. They face the double-edged sword of a ban on EU exports and a turbulent domestic market hit by labour shortages which has seen breeders’ pigs fall to a fifth of their normal value, said Zoe Davies, chief executive of the NPA.
“The government has left the industry to sort out the mess,” she said. “Selling into the internal market has been disastrous.”
In 2020, about 11,000 pigs were sold to the EU from the UK, according to Davies.
Mark Pratt, 54, is a specialist pig breeder who works for JSR Genetics in East Yorkshire. A subsidiary of one of the largest family-run UK pig farms, he helps run a sophisticated operation using laboratories to produce designer sire, damline and sirelines pigs.
While they sold 30% of their livestock of female pigs to Europe in 2020, Pratt said the company has been forced to cut production and redirect some to the domestic market, where the £250 pigs are worth half as much as before.
“We haven’t been able to make in excess of around £2m worth of sales,” he said. “It’s extremely frustrating.”
Paul Anderson, 63, has worked in the rearing business for 27 years and is international sales manager at the UK branch of Genesus.
The Canadian company rears 1,700 high genetic value female pigs in the UK across 12 sites, but Anderson said the value of its pigs has halved to £65 each after they were forced to sell many domestically.
“It has devastated the business. We haven’t been able to truck a pig out of the UK since Brexit,” he said, estimating that 80% of his stock is usually exported abroad, the large majority to the EU.
Anderson said that when the company has exported to the EU, it has had to transport pigs from Canada instead, where Genesus is headquartered. He said that if the problems continue, the company may consider shutting down the UK operation completely by next spring.
“It’s absolutely crazy and it’s costing everyone a fortune,” he said. “We’re flying pigs where we could just drag them across Europe.”
So while leaving the EU closes some doors in the UK, as opportunities shrink for British farmers and breeders, it also unexpectedly opens others: in post-Brexit Britain, pigs do fly.