The live export of farm animals upsets some animal lovers.Some readers may wonder why this is. Animals have always been moved from place to place. What has changed that people are now protesting about it?
The first point is that our cultural view of animals has changed: animals used to be seen as non-thinking, non-feeling objects, reacting more by reflexes than anything else. Their owners were largely allowed to treat them in any way that they felt like doing, and some people didn't take the feelings of the animals into account in any major way. While it was illegal to inflict deliberate pain on animals, it was not against the law to allow them to live drab, uncomfortable, stressed lives.
These days, we know different: animals are sentient creatures, far more like humans than we used to believe. Imaging studies of their brains show that the same areas light up when they feel emotions as in humans, and they share the same neurotransmitter chemicals. They show the same types of facial expressions as us (such as grimacing) when afraid or in pain. Scientists now tell us that if an animal looks fearful, uncomfortable, or distressed, then there's a very high chance that that's exactly what they are feeling inside. New animal welfare legislation means that animals must be allowed to have lives worth living, and they must be kept free of discomfort, hunger, thirst, and disease, as well as being allowed to express natural behaviours.
This new understanding of animal sentience means that it's no longer acceptable to treat animals in the cursory, utilitarian, brutal way that some people used to do. Current EU animal transport legislation includes very strict measures to protect animal welfare, but even with these, many people now feel that some types of live export of animals are wrong.
The second point is that markets have changed, and economic pressures now push farmers to export certain animals because it's the only way that they can survive financially. The value of these animals on the Irish market is so low that the only economic answer for the farmers is to move the animals overseas to be sold for a better price. So while in the past, some animals might have been sold at home, they are now exported.
There is a clash between those who feel that live export is wrong, and farmers whose only option to survive economically is to export certain groups of live animals.
It's worth explaining more about the two main groups of animals involved
First, young bulls are exported to Turkey and Libya, 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.
One answer to this issue could be for EU or Irish authorities to inspect the final destinations of these animals, to ensure that they meet the correct animal welfare standards. The Australian authorities have done this for a decade (they have a large live export trade) and it seems to be a step in the right direction.
The second contentious group of animals is 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. This has led to an increase in the number of male calves which have little value. Cows need to be pregnant in order to continue to produce milk, but their offspring are not wanted. Recently male calves were being sold for 50c at marts and many dairy farmers have been giving them away to dealers for export. The ISPCA believes that this increase in the national dairy herd is unsustainable from an animal welfare perspective, and also from a farmer welfare perspective: there is a shortfall of dairy workers and there's also a problem with availability of vets at peak calving time, which has been truncated into a six week period. Nonetheless, it is "good business" in other ways, with the large dairy processing companies thriving.
In 2018 around 140000 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 200000.
The answer to this challenge? A veal market could be created in Ireland, allowing the farmers to do the rearing work currently done in other countries. And perhaps those successful dairy processing companies could divert some of their new profits towards such a project: after all, it could be said that those unwanted calves are a direct by-product of their success.
Ireland has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, with farmers and vets - both private and state-employed - working hard to do the best job possible for the animals under their care. But certain aspects of live export of animals would benefit from some creative thinking about making improvements.