At a time of intense economic anxiety, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has made a sensible decision not to ban fur farming – after a comprehensive review of the trade.
There are only five fur farms in Ireland – all dealing in mink – but they are in parts of the country hardest hit by the recession: Donegal (which has two mink farms), Laois, Sligo and Kerry.
Anti-fur lobbyists wanted these closed down and put out of business, following the ban on fur farming in Britain and Northern Ireland in 2000 – although the British ban has cost the British taxpayer upward of €20m in compensation to the former employees in the industry and there are ongoing legal complications.
Apart from the UK, only Austria bans fur farming in Europe – all the other EU states permit it, and it provides 60,000 full-time jobs directly.
Mr Coveney has, however, pledged that while fur farming in Ireland will not be prohibited, more stringent conditions of inspection, veterinary attention and animal welfare will be introduced. Fur farm licences will be reviewed every five years, and any fur farm can be inspected, without prior notice.
Animal rights lobbyists have expressed disappointment at the minister's decision, but they should be at least gratified that more protection for animal welfare is to be introduced, and that every effort will be made to ensure that the mink being reared for their pelts – about a quarter-of-a-million mink pelts are exported from Ireland each year – are to be subjected to regulation and inspection.
The rearing and slaughter of animals is a routine part of agricultural practice, and there is nothing wrong with it, so long as the animals are treated properly. Only those who are strict vegans have the moral entitlement to disparage such husbandry.
In fact, responsible environmentalists might be better employed in campaigning against imitation fur, which is an ecological nightmare. While real fur is an organic product, can be recycled and is bio-degradable, "faux" fur just gets tacky without ever decaying, and like all plastic-based products, will clutter up the world's landfill waste areas for hundreds of years.
The leading European fur producers and auctioneers are in Finland and Denmark. Denmark has pioneered the concept of ethical fur farming, underlining the importance of rearing and slaughtering the mink without cruelty.
The Irish fur trade is quite small at present – employing just 62 people, with an export value of just under €5m annually – but there is potential for expansion. As with other agricultural practices, the Danes are showing the way: expand the co-operative basis, encourage open inspection of the conditions and then market the product as something useful, attractive and natural.
Fur makes a uniquely beautiful – and uniquely warm – garment. It's sadly wasteful that there are probably hundreds of unused fur coats reposing at the back of Irish women's wardrobes – fur they are frightened to wear in case of being bullied or intimidated – though this is actually rare. Anyone who has an unused fur coat should donate it to a charity right now: we are facing into an exceptionally cold winter and a spare fur coat will keep somebody in need toastily warm.