“Utterly unacceptable and unlawful”: Ireland’s mistreatment of male calves


“Utterly unacceptable and unlawful”: Ireland’s mistreatment of male calves

14 July 2023

A new documentary by Ireland’s RTÉ Investigates programme, 'Milking It; Dairy's Dirty Secret' has exposed animal welfare breaches of male calves in Ireland, both on-farm and during live export to Europe.

Irish milk production has jumped 68% since the EU milk quota system was abolished in 2015. Ireland now produces just short of 9 billion litres of milk every year and 10% of the world’s infant formula. To meet this demand, approximately 1.5 million dairy calves are born in Ireland every year. While female calves are reared to become dairy cows, over half a million male calves born each year are considered a valueless by-product of the sector, as they neither produce milk nor fatten well for beef. Male calves therefore face a difficult fate: either killed at a few days old, or shipped to veal farms in Holland, Spain, Italy, and, more recently, to a growing market in Poland and Romania. 

The RTÉ documentary included investigation footage carried out by L214 and Eyes on Animals, assisted by our member organisation Ethical Farming Ireland, which covered the journey of calves transported from Ireland to France and the Netherlands.

Despite scientific evidence suggesting that these animals should not travel until 12 weeks old due to their undeveloped immune systems and incapacity to correctly use feeding devices, the industry continues to ignore this recommendation, and calves are exported at around 15 days old. Also, The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends a minimum age of 5 weeks for transport, emphasising the vulnerability of these animals during their early stages of life.

Furthermore, EU regulations clearly state that unweaned calves must be given water and, if necessary, fed after 9 hours of transport, when they should receive a rest period of at least 1 hour before being transported again. However, footage reveals that the calves are subjected to 30-hour journeys without milk or rest: a flagrant violation of EU law, and a general disregard for animal welfare.

Further footage taken by RTÉ told the same story of gruelling journeys for young calves that breach the EU Regulation on the transport of live animals. In addition, workers could be seen repeatedly kicking young calves, hitting them with sticks, and throwing them from trailers.

The documentary has caused political outcry, with the Irish Department of Agriculture confirming an investigation into the programme findings. Irish Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue called the practices uncovered in the documentary “utterly unacceptable, and in some instances unlawful”.

Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar described the footage as "repugnant". Mr Varadkar said there would be "robust and timely" action against people found to have breached regulations in the footage, and that the reputation of the sector relied on compliance with the regulations in place.

The documentary proves once again that the existing animal welfare legislation does not go far enough to protect EU farmed animals at rearing, transport or slaughter. The European Commission has the power to improve the transport regulation this year, with the revision of the EU Animal Welfare legislation. In particular, they must:

  • Ban ‘unfit animals’ from being transported, including unweaned animals, for whom these journeys are even more difficult to bear
  • Place strict limitations on journey times
  • Ensure that the new rules are better enforced
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, Founder of Ethical Farming Ireland

Indeed, and as recommended during the documentary, the culling and mistreatment of “valueless” male calves should be avoided, which is currently possible by using sexed semen. The transport of farmed animals should be reduced, refined and replaced by meat and carcasses, semen and embryos as recommended by the FVE, WOAH and EFSA.