See inside one of Ireland's last fur farms
The Sjoholm family moved from Finland to Donegal 50 years in response to an Irish government drive to build a mink farming industry in this country. Now a proposed ban on fur farming leaves them facing the wipeout of a business they have invested €4m in over the decades
When Sven Sjoholm's uncle spotted an advertisement in Fur Rancher magazine, outlining the tax breaks that Ireland was offering to mink farming start-ups, he showed the magazine to his brother Sune, who had better English.
That set in motion the train of events that saw Sune (Sven's father) and his wife Karita decide to move to Ireland in 1967.
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The 15-year tax break being offered by the Irish government and cheap land meant the Sjoholms only had to import 2,000 breeding mink to start their mink farm in the Glenties.
"My father read the article and went to Ireland. He liked what he saw and still lives in Donegal," says Sven.
Today, Sven runs the Tazetta Teoranta farm; despite the Finnish name and looks, he speaks with a distinct Donegal accent.
There are approximately 30,000 mink on the Tazetta Teoranta farm. This is lower than in the peak years due to a downturn in the fur market caused by overproduction in the last two years.
But the Donegal farm is still regarded as a big unit, especially compared to mink farming in Finland, where many farms keep mink as part of their farming mix.
"Fur farming in Finland is about as common as sheep farming in the hills of Donegal," says Sven.
Auctions The mink farmed in Donegal are sent to international auction houses in Copenhagen, Helsinki and Toronto, where they graded for pelt quality.
The farm culls around 25,000 pelts every year, with current auction prices seeing pelts fetch around €25 each.
When leaving the farm, the male and female pelts are packed separately, and when they reach the auction house, they are then sorted and allotted into batches of similar-grade mink from other farms. They are sold in lots of up to 10,000 pelts, made up of strings of skins.
The pelts are sold to the highest bidder the strongest demand is from China, Korea, Europe and Russia.
"The media would suggest demand for fur has dropped in recent years, but the UK is the largest importer of fur products in Europe," says Sven.
The Chinese demand for fur grew between 2012 and 2015, driving the average pelt price to €80, but when the Chinese economy slowed, demand fell and prices followed suit.
According to Sven, in 2013 there were 90 million mink produced on the market in the world. Today that number is around 40 million.
A more pressing worry for the Sjoholm family is the bill due to come before the Oireachtas that would outlaw fur farming in this country.
"It scares me to think of this (legislation)," says Sven. "I have worked 20 years in the family business here and in all that time, I've reinvested back into the business, maybe up to €4m over the years - that is tied up here.
"If this legislation comes to pass I am stuck with something I can do nothing with. My livelihood is at risk of being put away and that money is gone."
Sven says it's pressure from animal rights groups that has led to the proposed fur farming ban. "Our opponents are not only after the mink industry.
"We are getting picked on first as we are the smallest group," he says. "Then they will want to move on to the next.
"All these groups are vegan orientated so they want to see no use of animal product.
"We are seeing one step at a time. They are looking to put pressure on the farming community. Wearing a fur product, or animal product, I don't see a difference in fur or leather or meat for consumption, as long as the animals are treated with respect and welfare."
Sven's parents too are very worried. "They were invited to come into the country and set up a business. Now, 50 years later, they are possibly being told we can't continue anymore," he says.
"I find it hard. They feel it, too. They came here in good faith, you don't want to see something be stopped at the stroke of a pen."
Protesters have targeted Sven's farm in the past and he says everyone is entitled to their own opinion. "But they think their view and no one else's matters."
He also says such campaigning won't just stop at mink farming.
"Veganism is a new business model. In a democracy, we are entitled to our own free will, and it should not be forced on us that 'now we don't like beef'.
"My future is being decided by people who have never been to a mink farm."
'There was no consultation with us on how this threat to our livelihoods will be managed'
Three weeks ago, on a Monday morning, Sven Sjoholm received a phone call telling him there was a front-page news story saying that his farm would be shut down.
'Fur farming is to be banned in Ireland' the headline stated, and his friend read out the article to him. The Minister for Agriculture was to bring a proposal to government to phase out fur farms in Ireland.
It was the first he'd heard of it, and when I visited his farm in Donegal almost two weeks later, he still hadn't received any official communication.
The country's three remaining fur farmers have met the Minister since then and were told officially about the proposed ban on fur farming, but, according to Sven, no details have been shared on how this ban will be implemented.
Department officials told the fur farmers that fur farming in Ireland will be phased out once the Bill is enacted.
"This Bill will make it illegal for any new fur farms to be established, and phase-out arrangements will be put in place for the small number of current operators to allow for an orderly wind-down of the sector," the Department said in a statement.
Sven said he and the other two fur farmers sought meetings with local representatives.
"We spoke to TDs in advance of the Cabinet-level decision to move forward with a Bill to phase out fur farming in Ireland.
"Neither myself, nor the other farmers were contacted at any point by government for consultation as to how this threat to our livelihoods could be managed, or indeed if there was a clear reason as to why fur farming should be phased out in Ireland any more than cattle farming or sheep farming," he said.
Veterinary Ireland had originally looked at a number of recommendations to improve the health and welfare of farmed mink, in 2018. But having reviewed the available evidence, it said the fur farming industry's WelFur programme cannot prevent the problems regularly encountered on fur farms.
It is now backing the proposed ban on mink farming.
According to Sven, all licenced fur farmers are governed by robust EU regulation (Protection of Animals at the Time of Slaughter 1099/2099), as are all industries that produce animal products.
Sven says WelFur is a science-based on-farm animal welfare assessment tool based on the principles and methodology of the European Commission's Welfare Quality model.
"It was developed by independent animal welfare scientists from seven European universities. It is self and co-regulated by the European Commission since early this year and adds a further and deeper assessment on the already robust EU legislation.
"All WelFur farm assessments are carried out by an independent third-party assessment group, which issues WelFur certificates.
"Fur farmers who do not comply with the WelFur programme do not receive the WelFur certificate, and furthermore will be prohibited from selling fur pelts at international fur auction houses."
'There was no consultation with us on how this threat to our livelihoods will be managed'
It's not all about the fur: mink carcases are rendered for biodiesel, and fats and oils used by the cosmetic industry
The pelting process, which involves removing the fur, happens when the mink are six months old.
For Sven Sjoholm, it's the quality of the fur and overall size that matters. The mink that produces the best pelt is clam and clean, with a dense underfur.
The mink on Sven's farm is a strain from Wisconsin which was introduced to Finland in the early 1960s.
Natural methods are used for getting females pregnant, and in March, they select females for breeding. The mink have kits, or young mink, once a year with females producing around four kits in April/May.
The young mink are weaned at eight weeks, as EU legislation dictates this, and the mink are kept usually one or two per cage.
"In early autumn we select out breeding animals for next year based on health, size, quality and calmness. The calmer they are, the better. That is improving the domestication of the mink further," says Sven.
The male pelt is a lot bigger, but the female pelt is silkier, according to Sven.
Females breed for up to five years.
Sven carries out the whole pelting process on his farm, with 25,000 mink processed on average.
The rest of the carcase goes to rendering plants for biodiesel production, while the fats and oils can go into the cosmetic industry.
The mink are euthanised individually with carbon monoxide, then left for 24 hours in sawdust to ensure the pelt is a clean as possible, before the pelt is removed by machine. The fat is then removed and the pelt put back into sawdust and then on to the drying boards.
Sven is shocked that I suggest the mink could be alive when they are skinned.
"Who in their right mind would do that?" he asks.
"The Department lands up here unannounced, and at times they have come here it's when I haven't been here. I want the farm to be open and transparent."
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