Live export of farm animals: podcast from vet spot on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show

Compassion in World Farming Ireland  hosted a demonstration outside the Dail at 1pm on Wednesday 12th June, protesting against the live export of animals from Ireland. In this week’s vet spot, we discuss some of the specific contentious aspects of the live export of farm animals from Ireland. You can listen to the podcast at the foot of this page.

Livestock exports – a brief history

In the 1930’s through to the 1950’s. approximately 80% of the output of the Irish beef sector was exported live, with the vast bulk going to the UK.  This began to change from the 1950’s onwards, with an increasing percentage being slaughtered and processed in Ireland. Now approximately 1.75 million cattle are slaughtered in Ireland each year. We export 10% of this number ( 175-200 000 per annum) as live animals, with 85-90% of these going to other EU countries.

Over the years, various factors have led to significant changes in this area. Back in the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s. the EU paid a subsidy on cattle exported live from EU countries (including Ireland) to non-EU or so called “third countries”. These subsidies (“export refunds”) led to large volumes (peaking at 500-700 000 per annum) of live exports from Ireland to countries such as Egypt and Lebanon in the 80’s and early 90’s.

After these EU subsidies were abolished in the early 90’s. this trade dwindled significantly. Now live exports to non EU countries are not subsidized so they must happen based on normal commercial rates/world prices. Given the high transport costs, the relatively small volume of live trade from Ireland to non EU countries (15-30000 per annum) now tends to be to high priced markets such as Turkey, as well as some smaller volumes of specialised trade (breeding stock etc).

What are the most contentious aspects of live export of cattle?

Current EU animal transport legislation does include strict measures to protect animal welfare, but even with these in place, many people now feel that aspects of live export of animals are wrong. Taking a mature bullock, and transporting them to a non-EU country to face a traditional throat-slitting slaughter, without pre-stunning, is unacceptable to many people. Or placing a young calf in a truck and driving them to a port, then on a ferry journey, and then to a farm, is seen as unfair. The video footage of young calves being physically abused on a Cherborg holding station is an example of the type of situations that can develop. 

1. Exports to non-EU countries

First, young bulls are exported to Turkey and Libya (and soon to Algeria as well), where animal welfare standards are not the same as they are in Ireland or EU. It seems odd that farmers are obliged to look after the animals well until they cross the border, and after that, anything goes. Many people believe that EU farmers should be obliged to care for such animals from birth to death, rather than allowing this to happen. 

There’s an argument that one answer would be for Irish or EU veterinary authorities could inspect the farms and abattoirs where these animals are going, to ensure that they have high enough standards. The Australian authorities have taken this type of approach, and it has helped reassure animal welfare supporters that a more responsible approach is being taken to exported livestock in these situations.

2. Exports of high numbers of unweaned dairy calves

Young male dairy calves that are now being exported in higher numbers than ever. The Irish dairy herd has increased from 1.1 million head to 1.5 million head since the milk quota was scrapped in 2015. The cows need to be pregnant in order to continue to produce milk, but this high level of calf production produces an unwanted and valueless by-product: male dairy-breed calves. What can be done with them?

In 2018 around 140,000 unweaned male calves were exported from Ireland, most going to France and the Netherlands to be raised and slaughtered for veal. This meat is then exported from France and Netherlands. mostly to Spain and Italy. In 2019 the Minister for Agriculture has indicated that this figure will reach 200,000. This is a difficult problem to solve: what to do with all these animals?

One suggestion has been that a veal market could be created in Ireland, allowing the farmers to do the rearing work currently done in other countries. Veal had a bad name in the past, when young calves were kept in barren crates and forcibly deprived of iron in order to make them artificially anaemic to produce pale meat. EU legislation has stopped all this, so that now so-called “rose veal” is more acceptable to many people from an animal welfare perspective.

Why not just stop all live export now?

I know that many of protesters just want live export to STOP, and that could be a worthy long term ambition. It makes welfare sense that farm animals should live their lives in one place, then end their lives in as close a location as possible. However real politik means that compromises must be sought to solve these problems.

In Australia, a decade ago, when there was such an outcry at the suffering after thousands of animals died aboard export ships, that all export was temporarily ceased. The unforeseen consequences included backdams of high numbers of animals on farms, with not enough food for them, leading to hungry, emaciated animals, and stressed, impoverished farmers.

Change is needed, but it’s likely to be most effective if it’s carefully planned and gradual.

Questions from listeners

Pete did his usual Facebook Live video discussion after the vet spot, and you can watch it here.

Listen to the podcast:

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