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Peter Roberts

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 Amsterdam.

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.

 

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