Saturday 25 October 2014

The mink behind the wire: inside Ireland's fur farms

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

Mink
Mink shed

TODAY the Sunday Independent takes you behind the scenes for an unprecedented looks at Ireland's controversial fur-farming industry.

One of the three farms across the country - whose location cannot be identified for security reasons - houses more than an astonishing 90,000 mink, who sit in cages waiting to be "harvested" for their fur in November.

Half of these animals will be gassed before Christmas and the fur will be sold on international markets, while the remaining mink will be used for breeding and regenerating next year's crop.

Ireland's fur farms recently came under attack from celebrities such as Imelda May, Saoirse Ronan and Love/Hate actor Robert Sheehan after anti-fur campaigners claimed they are a "violation of the freedoms underpinning animal welfare".

However, in a rare interview, the Irish Fur Breeders Association Chairman has hit back at these claims, and claimed the industry is heavily regulated and a vital source of business in some of the country's most isolated areas.

Sven Sjoholm (31), a third generation fur farmer with roots in Finland, insisted his industry is operating "humanly".

He told the Sunday Independent: "We face even more regulations than our European counterparts.

"I am not criticising other forms of agriculture, but if you look at a lot of the food production animals, they have a lot less square space per animal compared to what the mink would have."

Mr Sjoholm's family set up a farm here in 1969 after the Government offered incentives to create a fur-farming industry in Ireland.

Now, despite the renaissance of fur on many of the world's catwalks, the location of Mr Sjoholm's farm cannot be disclosed because of 
attacks that occur on such premises.

Much of the recent criticism of the fur industry centres on the caging and slaughtering methods of mink by those employed in the industry.

Over 150,000 mink will be killed in Ireland before Christmas as they are harvested for their coats and exported to international markets.

The issue has recently prompted over 270 of Ireland's most popular personalities from film, television and music to call on Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney to ban the practice.

However, Mr Sjoholm's is keen to point out that the minister recently reviewed the industry and ruled in its favour, despite having previously voted for it to be banned in a 2005 Dail Bill.

Speaking about how the animals are slaughtered for the annual harvest every winter, Mr Sjoholm said: "We use a carbon monoxide gas which is governed by EU regulation."

He added: "To adhere to the regulations, you first have to test the gas before the animals are put into the chamber with a carbon monoxide analyser that measures the volume of gas within the box. All of the operators on the fur farms in Ireland have been trained by the Department of Agriculture in the euthanasia of mink."

However, this practice has been met with strong criticism from the Campaign for the Abolition of Cruel Sports. Chairman John Fitzgerald told the Sunday Independent: "The way that the mink are killed is a big issue because it causes unnecessary stress.

Mr Sjoholm insists this practice is recognised as the most humane way of harvesting the animals, killing them within seconds of entering the chamber.

But Mr Fitzgerald insists the Irish fur farms should be shut down.

"Nobody wants to see people out of a job but it is an issue the Government should address. In the case of fur farming, there are only a small number of them and they do not contribute a whole lot to the economy," he added.

However, Mr Sjoholm argues that fur-farmers are also victims, and are bullied by opposition groups who have attacked their farms in the past.

"We have all seen some incidents and it is sad that it has come to that. We end up running shift work here so that we can have people on site 24 hours a day because we don't want to take the chance of somebody letting the mink out or damage being done," he said.

An attack on a farm in Sligo four years ago resulted in the release of 30,000 mink into the wild. The farm was eventually forced to close, but many of the liberated mink were killed by traffic on nearby roads.

The release also created a local ecological nightmare, as the mink depleted fish resources in local rivers.

"Most of the farms are located in very rural areas where there are very few employment opportunities and a lot of youth emigration - all of the people that I went to school with have gone to America, Australia or Canada," Mr Sjoholm added.

There are three remaining fur farms in Ireland. They employ over 120 people and the industry is worth €15m annually to the exchequer.

And the industry is growing.

Staff numbers have doubled since the 2012 review by the Department of Agriculture and its value to the national economy has trebled as farms grew and expanded after their futures were secured by the minister's ruling.

"When people were talking about banning fur-farming, there was a lot of fear and worry locally for people," Mr Sjoholm added.

"Since the review ruled in our favour and the threat of a ban was eliminated, the farms have actually invested quite considerable amounts in their farms because up until that point we could not do that because of the uncertainty surrounding the industry."

Sunday Independent

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