A renewed battle by animal protection pressure groups to block the export of live veal calves from the UK is now pending in the European Court following a High Court ruling in December.

Rearing calves using the continental veal crate system has been banned in the UK since 1990. Now a new challenge to the controversial export trade in calves has been mounted by the RSPCA along with Compassion in World Farming and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

However, in a High Court round of the battle, Mr Justice Popplewell has ruled that the UK High Court is not in a position to decide the legality of the export trade.

He has held that only the European Court can decide whether the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's (MAFF) interpretation of the law is right or wrong.

The argument will centre on whether EU law gives the UK discretion to impose restrictions on export of veal calves to other member states where calves are likely to be reared in conditions which fall below minimum standards enforced here, although complying with EU directives.

The case is one which the RSPCA says will effect every country in Europe and Mr

Justice Popplewell took the view it was a matter which had to be decided by the European Court in Luxembourg.

The High Court was told that Minister of Agriculture Douglas Hogg remains neutral over the question of a reference to Europe.

But MAFF counsel Richard Plender QC said Hogg thought that a unilateral ban on calf exports from the UK could be counter-productive.

He said Hogg took the view that a ban could result in continental veal producers turning to other more distant sources for their supplies and conditions for animals could become worse than those the pressure groups were challenging.

Opposition to the moves comes from the National Farmers Union and the Livestock

Industry Support Trust (List). List represents a number of farmers not represented by the NFU along with auctioneers and haulage firms.