December 4, 2006
Peter Roberts, who has died aged 82, conducted a one-man campaign
against cruelty in farming, which led to a re-classification of animals
under European law from agricultural goods to sentient beings.
After taking up dairy farming at Greatham, Hampshire, in the 1950s,
Roberts became so appalled by the suffering of animals in intensive
farming systems that he started writing letters to newspapers,
protesting about the confinement of calves, sows and laying hens in
stalls and cages too small to allow them any freedom of movement. He
and his wife, Anna, then set up a trust, which became Compassion in
World Farming (CIWF).
When they began, Roberts's vision of a world in which farm animals were
treated with respect and compassion looked a hopeless cause. Farm
animals were mere agricultural products without any legal protection,
and CIWF was seen as just another animal welfare campaign, run on
emotion and little else.
But Roberts brought intellectual discipline to his cause, arguing the
need for an agricultural system that would sustain the world. An early
slogan, "Compassion Fights Factory Farming and Famine", attracted such
figures as Spike Milligan and the model Celia Hammond, who was
photographed in a mocked-up "battery cage".
The son of a GP, Peter Holtom Roberts was born on June 7 1924 at
Rugeley, Staffordshire. He went to Denstone College, and Harper Adams
agricultural college. After serving with the Army in Malaya, where he
worked with mules, Roberts took on a 60-acre farm to rear cows and grow
kale and corn. He became disturbed by the growth of factory farming,
particularly after taking learning about the trade in veal calves to
France and Holland.
In 1961 he gave up eating meat. Roberts eventually abandoned farming
and opened a health food shop at Petersfield, known as the Bran Tub; he
also set up Direct Foods, to market the meat substitute TVP. With his
vast knowledge of farming (underpinned by a National Diploma in
Agriculture), he had an instinct for knowing how far to go, when to
push home his arguments and when to hold back.
In 1984 he astonished the Canons Regular at Storrington Priory, West
Sussex, by telling them that keeping 650 calves chained by the neck, in
crates so narrow that they could not turn around or walk, was cruel. He
then took them to court, where they lost their case.
A few months later the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
announced a law to ban the keeping of calves in narrow veal crates. It
was introduced in 1990, and was CIWF's first major victory.
When a Bill to outlaw the keeping of pregnant sows in narrow stalls or
on chains during their pregnancies was introduced, one MP noted that he
had received more post on the issue than about the Gulf War. In 1999
narrow stalls and chains were made illegal in Britain.
Realising that European law also needed to be changed, CIWF started a
pan-European petition, which led six years later to a protocol
recognising animals as sentient beings becoming part of the Treaty of
Peter Roberts, who died on November 15, was guided by a strong personal
spiritual philosophy. He was appointed MBE in 1992. His wife and their
three daughters survive him.