Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
LisaGriffin Newborn Irish calf laying in hay

Opinion Vulnerable unweaned calves need protection in our export trade

Animal welfare campaigner Caroline Rowley outlines why she is challenging the State’s enforcement of EU law to protect farm animals exported abroad.

WE ARE CONSISTENTLY told by the State that the live export of farm animals is a highly regulated industry, with high welfare standards and care for the animals.

Yet investigations by animal welfare groups in Irish and other European countries have pointed to breaches of EU animal welfare standards, as well as evidence of sickness, injury and death among cattle and calves exported to Europe and further afield.

One area of particular concern is the export of unweaned calves, thousands of which, at just 15 to 21 days, are sent on long journeys to veal farms in Europe where they are slaughtered at a few months old.

Exports have grown in recent years; largely as a result of the uncontrolled expansion of the dairy industry that is producing an increasing number of male calves that the sector has no outlet for.

  • Noteworthy wants to examine if we are turning a blind eye to animal welfare concerns in the live export trade. Support this project here.

A long and difficult journey

European regulations state that animals should not be transported for more than eight hours; however, there are derogations for longer journey times so long as certain conditions are met around rest and feeding times.

In this case, unweaned calves can be transported for nine hours, after which they must be allowed to rest for one hour and be given water and feed as required. The calves can then be transported for another nine hours after which they must be unloaded and fed.

A good practices guide published by the European Commission, for example, states “young calves have to be provided with feed/water after as little as 8-9 hours”.

In reality, however, welfare groups have documented cases where calves are in a truck at ports after nine hours and are still on the ferry after 19 hours.

The ferry journey alone is 18 hours and often trucks transporting the calves are at the port for four or five hours before departure time.

Journey logs released under FOI, for example, show the calves have been put in the trucks for around 30 hours before being unloaded and fed at the resting point in Cherbourg.

Negative impacts of the journey

There are also serious concerns about feeding of the calves. At 15 days old, calves are dependent on a liquid diet and need milk or milk replacer at least twice a day.

As there are around 300 in each truck over three levels, it is not possible to access all calves to dispense the milk. In essence, many weeks-old calves are going 24-30 hours with no feed.

Leaving unweaned calves for long periods with no feed can cause all kinds of health and welfare problems. They have little body fat in reserve and the stress of transport means they burn energy at a faster rate than they would on the farm.

They cannot regulate their body temperature effectively and calves that receive no feed during a long journey will be more susceptible to cold and heat stress.

Young, vulnerable calves do not have a fully developed immune system and the lack of feed has an adverse impact further compromising immunity.

Transport is inherently stressful and it is essential that the calves be supported during the journey by receiving adequate nutrition.

To leave them without feed for up to 30 hours will compound the stress of the journey and further compromise their immune system.

Time for Europe to take action

All transporters, including ferry companies, have been authorised to transport livestock by the Department of Agriculture with certain obligations to ensure that the transport of animals is conducted in line with the requirements under EU regulations.

Based on the evidence that we have collected, together with other organisations, we have submitted a formal complaint to the EU Commission against the Department of Agriculture for what we see as failures to take appropriate action in relation to potential breaches by ferry companies whose authorisations we argue should be revoked.

There is currently a committee of inquiry underway in the European Parliament to examine long distance transport of animals, if the regulations are fit for purpose, and how well they are being enforced. The live export of unweaned Irish calves is something that we hope is high up on the agenda.

There is something inherently wrong with a system where calves are born just to be killed, and something wrong with a society that allows it to happen.

Caroline Rowley is the director of Ethical Farming Ireland that campaigns for improved conditions for farm animals, more sustainable and ethical farming methods, and opposes live exports.


Are we turning a blind eye to animal welfare concerns in the live export trade?

Noteworthy wants to collate evidence gathered by animal welfare groups in Ireland and mainland Europe of recent animal welfare issues and examine how the State has acted on concerns raised.

Here’s how to support this proposal> 

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel