Ethical Farming Ireland

Analysis The sight of a tiny calf crammed into a trailer on top of a pile of others is sickening

Caroline Rowley of Ethical Farming Ireland says the shocking RTÉ Investigates findings this week showed nothing new when it comes to the welfare of young calves.

THE NATION HAS been horrified by the cruel brutal treatment exposed by RTÉ Investigates on Monday of young calves, mostly males from the dairy sector, at marts and during export to veal farms in mainland Europe. Sadly, I have seen it all before and have been highlighting many of these issues for years.

Working with French group L214 and the Dutch group Eyes on Animals, we have conducted several investigations into the calf export industry, exposing the rough treatment of young vulnerable calves at marts, prolonged periods of time with no feed during transport, abuse at the lairages in Cherbourg, and inhumane conditions at the destination veal farms.

I have seen footage of calves being hit, kicked, dragged by the ears and tail and prodded with the handle of paddles and sticks, I’ve seen them have gates slammed shut on them in an act of temper. But that was in France.

We have fantastic standards in Ireland, claims MEP Billy Kelleher, it’s those other member states that are ruining it for the rest of us. Well, that got blown out of the water by RTÉ Investigates because that exact behaviour towards very young calves is happening at Irish marts.

The sight of a tiny calf being crammed into a trailer, on top of a pile of others was sickening.

I shudder to think where they were going. Because the other exposure that sickened me was the truckloads of days-old calves being sent for slaughter. What kind of a nation are we that condones killing baby animals? What about this: Over 30,000 calves have been slaughtered so far this year, but that is just at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Approved slaughterhouses for human consumption, we don’t know how many are killed in total because it’s not recorded at other premises. So we actually have no idea how many calves are killed this way. Is this the reputation that we want, as an exporting nation with a lucrative dairy industry? You don’t see those images in the slick dairy product media promotions.

Cruel system

The issue starts with the overproduction of calves. To produce dairy a cow has to produce a calf. Cows that produce good milk don’t produce good beef. It is possible to use sexed semen but we can’t have an ever-expanding dairy sector so that isn’t the answer on its own, but it can be used to produce different breeds of calf that have more value. Or we could just switch to breeds that are dual purpose like the Flekvieh and Red Poll.

Whatever way, there must also be a reduction in the herd.

Over two million calves have been born this year to date. That’s a lot to deal with. That’s why the marts are packed full of 10 – 14 day old calves during calving season in spring. They can be there all day, in crowded pens with no food, sometimes no bedding and no access to water. They are visibly confused, hungry and exhausted, it’s a noisy and stressful environment for a young animal.

Workers can get frustrated and impatient trying to control them, and that’s where the abuse comes in. There is no excuse, but you can see how it happens.

After spending all day at a stressful mart, the calves can either stay there, get moved to an assembly centre or if they are too young for export go to a dealer’s yard. Whether they get fed that evening or not, we don’t know. We do know they are fed at around 10:00 am the next day, before being loaded for export.


During our investigation in March, we trailed two trucks from the assembly centre in Fossa, Kerry to Rosslare port. The trucks left at 14:15 for the 21:00 Stena Line ferry that left 50 minutes late that evening. So let’s do some maths.

Before even leaving Ireland the calves have not had any feed for nearly 12 hours. Then they have the 18-hour ferry journey, which took 19 hours because the sea was so rough, and a couple of hours to get to the lairage and unload and we are now at 33 hours with no feed, and as around 2,500 calves arrive at the same time many have to wait hours to be fed.

Again, this is where some workers can get impatient with the desperately hungry calves and treat them violently.

Abuse at the mart, prolonged starvation, abuse at the lairage in Cherbourg, inhumane veal farm, slaughter at six months old. That is the life of an Irish male dairy calf.
What concerns me is what happens next. In 2019 L214 exposed horrific abuse at the lairage in Tollevast, Cherbourg. One worker got prosecuted but the manager and all the other workers who watched were untouched and it was business as usual.

In 2020 L214 uncovered the same appalling treatment at the other lairage in Couville. Same thing, a worker or two got reprimanded and that was it. In 2023 L214 uncovered the abuse at Couville, nothing had changed. I bet we could go to both lairages today and would find the same violent treatment, and I fear it will happen at the marts.

Dairy farmers and farming groups have expressed shock and outrage in recent days following RTÉ Investigates’ work and stated that calf export is integral to the sector but must be done properly. Let’s be clear, there is no way to export calves humanely or in line with legislation because it is not possible to feed calves during transit. That is the simple truth.

The dairy industry must find an alternative outlet for their calves, and keep them with the herd until weaned. If you don’t have the facilities to look after them then don’t breed them in the first place.

Caroline Rowley is an animal welfare campaigner and founder of Ethical Farming Ireland. Her interest in farm animal welfare began when working in a hatchery on a kibbutz in Israel as a student. It wasn’t pleasant. This started years of focus on animal welfare, documenting shipments of cattle loading for Libya and Turkey, and truckloads of calves leaving for France. Caroline Rowley also contributed to Noteworthy’s investigation last year which exposed that unweaned calves were being left without milk for long periods on the journey to Europe. Read the full investigation here. 

voices logo

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