The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has defended sending surgeons serving in the British Army to controversial medical training involving live pigs shot by marksmen to replicate battlefield wounds.
The military medical staff carry out the drills on pigs which are shot and then operated on at a course provided in Nato's training facilities in Jaegerspris, Denmark. Formerly known as Operation Danish Bacon, the practice has been described by animal rights groups as "impossible to justify medically, ethically and educationally".
An MoD spokeswoman said: "This training provides invaluable experience, exposing our surgical teams to the specific challenges posed by the injuries of modern armed conflict. This training has helped save lives on operations and by participating in the Danish exercises we minimise the overall number of animals used."
The MoD argued that although the practice would not be illegal in the UK, approval would have to be obtained on a case-by-case basis from the Home Office. It said that by participating in the Danish exercises rather than replicating them in the UK they are minimising the number of animals involved.
The Government suspended British participation in the surgical training exercises in the summer of 1998 after they were brought to the attention of ministers.
But the courses were re-instated after it was determined there was "no equally effective alternative" and that it was "entirely appropriate and, indeed, necessary" for military surgeons to carry out training on animals.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) described the procedure as "invasive and deadly". Claiming it would be illegal in the UK, Peta called for life-like dolls that "breathe" and "bleed" to replace the use of live animals.
Mimi Bekhechi, associate director for Peta UK, said: "The overwhelming majority of the UK's Nato allies do not shoot, stab and dismember animals for their military training exercises.
"The Ministry of Defence's decision to ship out members of the armed forces for deadly and cruel exercises in Denmark - which would be illegal if conducted in the UK - is impossible to justify medically, ethically and educationally."
Eighteen pigs were used in the most recent tests earlier this month, the Mail on Sunday reported. They had circles drawn on their underbellies before a three-man sniper team fired shots intended to damage organs but not kill, the paper said. Surgeons then treated them as they would battle zone casualties, reportedly keeping the pigs alive for two hours before they were put down.