Red meat slaughterhouses: unloading, handling and holding animals

Rules for feeding, watering, prioritising, holding animals for slaughter, and the design and layout of a slaughterhouse.

If you work in a slaughterhouse (abattoir) and handle, restrain, stun or kill animals, you must hold a certificate of competence (CoC) for each procedure you carry out.

If you don’t comply with the requirements in this guide and with other Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (WATOK) requirements, you may be committing an offence and could lose your CoC.

You or your staff must also make sure you restrain, stun and kill animals correctly.

The Mandatory Use of Closed Circuit Television in Slaughterhouses (England) Regulations 2018 require slaughterhouse operators to install and operate a CCTV system that can cover the areas where live animals are present. These areas include unloading, lairage, handling, restraint, stunning and killing areas. The CCTV system must retain recorded images and information for 90 days and the slaughterhouse operator must provide access to the CCTV system and these recordings to inspectors if requested.

Guidance for slaughterhouse operators on compliance tells you how to comply with the rules of this legislation.

Unload animals

You must unload animals as soon as possible and slaughter them without unnecessary delay.

Your slaughterhouse must have suitable equipment and facilities to unload animals safely. For example, ramps for animals to walk down must have:

  • a slope that’s as flat as possible (for example, not steep)
  • walls or railings to prevent animals falling off

The floor must be non-slip and have side guards (lateral protection) where necessary.

Make sure there are no sharp edges, or parts that stick out, that animals could come in contact with and injure themselves.

Assess animals on arrival

When animals arrive, your animal welfare officer (AWO), or someone who reports to them, must assess the welfare of each animal in each consignment.

Your AWO must identify:

  • animals you need to slaughter first (prioritise)
  • any welfare needs, such as if an animal is sick
  • any measures to take, such as if animals have been subjected to hot or humid weather, you must cool them down

If an animal can’t walk, you must not drag it to the place of slaughter. You must kill it where it is.

Sick or injured animals

You must:

  • separate animals that are sick or injured
  • keep them apart from other animals.

You must have an isolation pen ready for animals that need care.

Prioritise animals for slaughter

You must immediately slaughter:

  • sick or injured animals
  • animals that are unweaned and too young to take solid food
  • lactating dairy animals
  • females that gave birth during the journey

Welfare of an unweaned animal or a lactating dairy animal

When you can’t slaughter an unweaned animal or a lactating dairy animal straight away you must relieve its suffering, such as:

  • put the animal in a holding pen (lairage)
  • provide drinking water
  • milk dairy animals at least once every 12 hours
  • provide appropriate conditions for suckling
  • consider the welfare of the newborn for any animals that have given birth
  • feed the animal if it’s not slaughtered within 12 hours of arrival

Moving animals

When moving animals you must not frighten, excite or mistreat them.

You must:

  • move every animal with care - lead animals individually if it’s necessary
  • only use a guiding instrument on an animal for short periods of time

You must not:

  • lead or drive an animal over ground or a floor, where it’s likely to slip or fall
  • knock over any animal

Avoid using electric shock instruments

You must avoid using electric shock instruments as much as possible.

You can only use electric shock instruments on adult cattle and adult pigs, when they refuse to move and if they have enough room to move forward.

You must:

  • adequately space electric shocks
  • only deliver a shock to the muscle of the hindquarters

You must not:

  • deliver a shock for longer than 1 second
  • keep using electric shocks if an animal doesn’t respond

Moving animals to the place of killing

You must:

  • only move animals to the place of killing when you’re ready to stun them - kill them straight away.
  • control the supply of animals, to avoid a rush from the holding pens
  • locate the place of killing so that it avoids unnecessary handling of animals up until the point of killing.

Walkway design

You must make sure all walkways and passageways are designed for animals to move freely in the direction you want them to go, without distraction, taking into account their herding or flocking nature.

You must have floors that are easy to maintain to prevent animals slipping, falling or injuring themselves.

Bridges, ramps and gangway design

Bridges, ramps and gangways must have sides or railings to prevent animals falling off.

What you must not do

You must not handle any animal in a way that causes it pain.

You must not:

  • strike or kick an animal
  • apply pressure to sensitive areas of an animal’s body that would cause avoidable pain or suffering
  • lift or drag an animal by the head, ears, legs, horns, tail or fleece or handle them in a way that would cause pain or suffering
  • use prods or other implements that have a pointed end
  • twist, crush or break the tail of an animal
  • grasp an animal’s eyes

Holding areas (lairage)

You must put a sign on each pen to show:

  • the date and time the animals arrived
  • the maximum number of animals to keep in the pen (except where you keep cattle individually)

You must feed any animals you hold in lairage for more than 12 hours. After that, feed them moderate amounts at regular intervals.

Inspect animals in lairage

You or your AWO must regularly inspect the welfare of animals in lairage at least twice a day, in the morning and evening.

You should prevent animals from being:

  • harmed by other animals
  • kept somewhere where they’re likely to be harmed by other animals

Lairage design

Lairage must:

  • have level floors to reduce the risk of slipping
  • allow the animal access to clean drinking water

Safety and shelter

You must make sure that lairage or field lairage:

  • keep the animals safe from potential injuries
  • don’t expose animals to sudden noises
  • keep animals securely so they don’t escape or get harmed by predators
  • are constructed so animals can be easily inspected

Lairage must have adequate ventilation.

Field lairage must offer both of the following:

  • shelter from bad weather
  • shade in good weather

Space in lairage

You must provide enough pens to house all animals that need lairaging.

There must be enough space for each animal to stand up, lie down and turn round (except where you keep cattle individually).


Your lairage or field lairage must be lit well enough for inspections. You can use fixed or portable lights.

Drinking water

For lairage and field lairage, you must provide access to clean water. You must position drinking containers so that:

  • animals can reach them easily
  • animals can’t foul them
  • you can refill them easily

Where practical, you must fix containers in position.

You must provide enough drinking containers for the number of animals.


You must position feeding equipment so that:

  • animals can reach food easily
  • animals can’t foul them
  • you can refill them easily

Where practical, you must fix containers in position.

You must provide enough feeding equipment for the number of animals.


You must have natural or mechanical ventilation to protect animals from:

  • extreme temperatures
  • harmful levels of humidity
  • harmful levels of ammonia

If you’ve installed a ventilation system it must respond to changing temperatures throughout the year. You must have an alarm and back-up system to cope with breakdowns of mechanical ventilation. Ventilation must be sufficient to prevent build-up of carbon dioxide and noxious gases such as ammonia. If you can smell ammonia, minimum ventilation rate is not being achieved. In the UK, the maximum permitted exposure to ammonia for humans is 25 ppm, and it is also used as a guideline for livestock.

Your AWO or vet may also offer guidance on the best levels for the species you handle.


If animals remain in lairage 12 hours after they arrive, you must give them bedding material. It must be suitable for their species.

You must ensure there’s enough bedding for the number of animals you’re holding.

Bedding material must absorb urine and faeces, or allow for good drainage.

Field lairages

You must make sure that fields you use for lairage do not expose animals to any physical harm. Animals must not come into contact with hazardous chemicals or any other health hazard.

The field lairage must provide shelter from bad weather - if it doesn’t, you can’t use it in bad weather. Similarly, if it doesn’t provide shade in hot weather, you can’t use it when it’s hot outside.

Lairage for horses

A lairage for horses must have at least one loosebox. It must be built to prevent a horse injuring itself or any other animal.

Tethering and tying animals

If you need to tie or tether an animal, you must:

  • do it in a way that still allows the animal to stand up, lie down, eat and drink
  • make sure it’s not done in a way that could strangle or injure the animal
  • still be able to release an animal quickly
  • make sure ropes and tethers are strong enough not to break
  • not tie an animal’s legs together
  • not tie an animal by the horns, antlers or nose ring
Published 15 October 2015
Last updated 21 March 2019 + show all updates
  1. Updated paragraphs on ventilation, and CCTV coverage

  2. First published.