Peter Roberts

Founder and director of Compassion in World Farming

Joyce D'Silva
Thursday November 23, 2006
The Guardian

Peter Roberts, who has died aged 82, was the founder and director of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) from its inception in 1967 until his retirement in 1991. CIWF was the first organisation devoted solely to the welfare of farm animals, and one of Peter's greatest achievements was the formal recognition of animals as "sentient beings" by the European Union. In 1995, he told CIWF's membership: "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Compassion in world farming was, and is, such an idea."

His concern for animals had started when, after wartime service, he settled down, with his wife, Anna, to dairy farming in Hampshire. Peter began to take his old, barren cows to the slaughterhouse and stayed with them to the end. The couple refused to send their surplus calves to market, fearing they might be bought for the live export trade and end up in veal crates in France or Holland.

When they heard of the new system, imported from the US, of intensive farming of broilers, they decided postwar farming was moving in the wrong direction. Peter wrote a strong letter to the press and it generated a huge response. Realising that there was a groundswell of feeling against intensive farming, he approached the major animal welfare societies, urging them to campaign against the keeping of hens in battery cages. They declined. Peter was despairing of their response to a solicitor friend, who said: "Peter, you'll just have to do it yourself. Come to my office and we'll set up a trust." Compassion in World Farming was born.

Peter Roberts was brought up in Rugeley, Staffordshire, where his father was a GP. He was educated at Denstone college, Staffordshire, and then did two years of war service in the army in Malaya. Returning home, he took a diploma in agriculture at Harper Adams Agriculture College. He remained a dairy farmer until CIWF was born.

At first, the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) treated Peter with what he charitably referred to as "benign amusement" - some might have called it "disdain". But Peter had touched a chord with the public, whose awareness had been raised by the publication of Ruth Harrison's seminal book Animal Machines in 1964. Now Peter was providing an organised outlet for people's horror at the keeping of hens in cages and the confinement of calves and breeding sows in narrow crates, unable to turn round.

Meanwhile, Peter stopped farming, and in 1978, he opened the Bran Tub in Petersfield, still one of the best independent health food shops. He also set up Direct Foods, marketing the early meat substitute TVP (textured vegetable protein). He himself had become a vegetarian, although CIWF encourages people to make their own informed dietary choices and to eat welfare-friendly products. For all the years that Peter put in as director of CIWF, he managed never to draw a salary.

With a small but dedicated team, he began to "take on" the farming establishment. In 1984 his attention was drawn to a veal farm owned by the Norbertine canons of Storrington Priory, Sussex. There he found 650 calves kept in crates and chained by the neck. He took the canons to court, alleging cruelty. Media interest was intense. Local Catholics started going elsewhere to mass. There were protests to the Pope. However the case was lost. Peter used to recall: "We may have lost that case, but it was instrumental in winning the war."

In 1966, a few months after the case had been heard, MAFF insisted repeatedly that Peter should attend a conference at the National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh, at which the junior minister, Donald Thompson, was speaking. To Peter's amazement, Thompson announced that the government planned to ban the keeping of calves in narrow veal crates. The ban became law in 1990 and marked CIWF's first major victory.

Further successes followed both at home and in Europe. In 1990, CIWF persuaded the MP Sir Richard Body to table a bill to outlaw the keeping of pregnant sows in narrow stalls or chains throughout their pregnancies. CIWF's members undertook a mass letter-writing campaign to their MPs. The then Conservative government took on the bill, and in 1999 narrow stalls and chains became illegal in the UK. As Peter realised that European law held no regard for the welfare of animals, classifying them as mere "goods" or "products", he conceived the idea of having the EU grant animals a new status as "sentient beings". CIWF launched a pan European petition in 1988. It was finally endorsed by the European parliament in 1994. Three years later, and with support from the newly elected Labour government in Westminster, a protocol on the protection of animals, which recognised them as "sentient beings", was agreed by the EU prime ministers and attached to the treaty of Amsterdam. However, to Peter's regret, he never managed to achieve a permanent ban on the export of live animals which remained, for CIWF, a high-profile issue.

Peter received several awards in his lifetime, from organisations such as the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association's Animal Welfare Foundation. In 2001, Peter, by then retired due to the onset of Parkinson's disease, received the first ever BBC TV award for his outstanding contribution to animal welfare. The following year he was awarded an MBE.

Peter was a powerful orator and writer and had huge personal charisma, yet he tempered his energy and commitment with wisdom and humility. He was always ready to challenge cruelty to farm animals in any form, yet he refrained from encouraging vilification of individuals, and was totally opposed to the use of threats and violence. His critique extended to the cruel practices and systems themselves and to the institutions that supported them. Those who knew Peter regard him as a true visionary. In his private life he was passionate about trees and butterflies, loved astronomy and was fascinated by Greek mythology.

Peter's legacy lives on in the organisation he founded. Today CIWF has a staff of 40, nearly 30,000 supporters, offices and representatives in 11 countries and a European coalition of 32 societies in 24 countries. Its message of compassion for farm animals is being taken seriously by global institutions such as the International Finance Corporation and the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health). First steps have been taking in emerging nations such as China and South Africa. The aim, of course, is to achieve Peter's ultimate vision- compassion in world farming.

He is survived by Anna and his daughters, Judy, Helen and Gill.

Peter Holton Roberts, farmer and campaigner, born June 7 1924; died November 15 2006