'Export loophole’: Irish cattle shipped from Spain on ‘substandard’ vessels

Thousands of cattle exported on vessels that do not meet standards required under Irish laws.

By Niall Sargent

TRADE OFF Investigation Thousands of cattle are being exported on vessels that do not meet standards required under Irish laws Export records show Irish cattle shipped from Spanish ports to North Africa on ‘substandard’ vessels Unwanted males from the dairy industry - first sent to Spain for fattening - are among those exported NGO:

IN THE PAST year, thousands of Irish cattle were sent from Spain aboard ageing livestock vessels where animals have been found to often suffer from heat, dehydration, and illness, Noteworthy can reveal. 

Official export data seen by Noteworthy shows these livestock vessels – long criticised by welfare groups – are below standards required under Irish animal welfare laws. 

Vessels have also been criticised by the EU for the high rate of deficiencies found during inspection, including fire safety and navigation safety issues that put the lives of cattle and crew at risk. 

Hundreds of thousands of weeks-old unweaned calves as well as older cattle are exported for slaughter, fattening or breeding on an annual basis. State data shows the majority are exported to other EU countries with strict laws for welfare standards during transport and slaughter. 

Spain is the key destination country, with over 500,000 cattle exported there in the past 10 years. The country is a fattening specialist with many animals spending months on specialist farms before further export to North Africa and the Middle East. Official Spanish export records seen by Noteworthy show that Irish cattle are among the animals exported.

  • This week on Noteworthy, our TRADE OFF series focuses on animal welfare concerns in the live export trade with more articles published in the coming days.

Cattle standing on three tiers and looking out from inside a truck transporting them to a port in Spain Cattle on truck waiting to board ship at a Spanish port
Source: Animal Welfare Foundation

Welfare concerns at the port

These Spanish documents confirm that thousands of Irish cattle – that would have arrived in Spain via ferry and transit through France – were exported through two ports between July 2021 and April 2022.

During this 10-month window, over 2,700 Irish cattle were exported from Tarragona port to either Egypt or Libya. The median age was eight months with some as young as three months when exported to North Africa. 

Two European animal welfare groups – Animals International and Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF) – recorded or obtained video and photographic evidence of loading and vessel conditions. In several of the videos, Irish cattle with ear tags logged in the official Spanish records are identifiable.

Footage, for example, shows Irish heifers in very cramped conditions as they are led through a narrow passageway directly from a truck to the ship. More footage from inside the same vessel shows French bulls in cramped pens and a bull with a broken, bleeding horn. 

Video taken during loading onto another ship destined for Libya shows French bulls trying to go up a very steep ramp between floors. To get the struggling bulls up the ramp, poor handling techniques are used including slapping, curling and pulling of tails which can damage the spine and cause pain.

A brown french bull with a broken and bloody horn standing on straw on a ship with metal gates in the background French bull with a broken horn on a ship leaving Spain
Source: Animal Welfare Foundation

Footage from a further shipment on this same vessel shows overcrowded pens on the vessel where the animals – including Irish friesian males – have no room to move freely or lie down in cramped pens, which is against EU regulations.

Animals International and AWF also shared footage of Irish cattle loaded at the Spanish port in Cartagena this year, documenting violations of EU rules, including excessive use of electric prods, according to Gabriel Paun of Animals International.  

Under EU rules, the devices cannot be used for more than one second and only on certain spots like the back leg. AWF also shared 2021 footage of cattle being prodded in the head while being loaded.

It has been found that the stress created by the use of a prod may impair the animals’ immune system, reduce weight gain, damage rumen function and reduce reproductive ability.

“Sometimes the animals turn around on the ramp, they are afraid to go onto the vessel and [workers] apply this electricity to their face multiple times and for a long, long time,” Paun said. 

“And then there is this very long journey on the vessel with many vessels that are black flagged,” Paun said. “There are no five star cruisers for animals.” 

Ships not up to Irish standards

Every year, the Paris Memorandum of Understanding, a maritime organisation that monitors the operation of substandard vessels, updates its “White, Grey and Black List” ranking country flags based on the total number of inspections and detentions over a three-year rolling period. 

The rankings go from quality flags (white) to flags with average performance (grey), and poor performance considered high or very high risk (black). Under Irish regulations, a vessel must fly the flag of a country on the “white list” to be approved to carry cattle from Ireland.

None of the eight ships used to transport Irish cattle from Spain would have been approved to transport animals from Ireland, with many flying black-listed flags.

This is quite common in the EU, with over two-thirds of the 78 EU-approved livestock vessels flying “substandard flags”. The majority are decades-old converted cargo vessels, with the European Parliament finding that half of them “pose a huge welfare risk for the animals transported”.

Documented issues include engine failure, fires, deaths of animals during voyage and stability problems, with over 2,500 deficiencies found in EU-approved livestock vessels in 2019 and 2020 alone. 

Dairy industry impact

Over 1,000 (38%) of the Irish cattle listed as exported from Spain were friesian, a dairy breed, of which 712 are noted as male, with the sex not listed in the remaining cases.

According to Maria Boada, a veterinarian working with Animal Welfare Foundation, most cattle going to Spain are males from the dairy industry. As males cannot produce milk they are seen as surplus to requirements and a drain on resources for Ireland’s expanding dairy industry. 

According to Boada, these animals go through two very difficult journeys often within the first year of their lives. First – sometimes as young as 15 days old – they go from Ireland to Spain via France, often travelling for up to 60 hours and going for long stretches without feed. 

“That is a lot of hours for these animals,” Boada said, with the journey onward from Spain to North Africa coming just months later for many. “The [Irish] public should know about this kind of loophole.”

The live export industry, farming groups, Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture all stressed to Noteworthy that the trade from Ireland has high welfare standards. The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), for example, told us Irish calves are in “excellent condition” when they reach their destination in Europe.

Legs and rears of black and white Irish cattle standing on straw behind metal bars on a ship Irish cattle on vessel departing from Spain
Source: Animal Welfare Foundation

Conditions in destination countries

Serious concerns have also been raised about the treatment of animals and methods of slaughter in key non-EU destination countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Egypt was the main destination country for two-thirds (1,771) of the cattle leaving Tarragona Port in Spain, followed by Libya (904), with a small number of cattle going to either Jordan or Lebanon. 

Egypt is ranked ‘F’ in the Animal Protection Index – compiled by World Animal Protection, with input from various NGOs and academics – as “existing legislation is not currently sufficient to protect the welfare of animals used in farming during rearing, transport and slaughter”. 

According to Caroline Rowley of Ethical Farming Ireland, Egypt has “incredibly cruel animal welfare standards and practices” with NGOs finding “absolutely appalling” slaughterhouse conditions including “terrible things like being stabbed in the eyes and tendons slashed”.

“The methods are not acceptable in Europe by our standards. Out of all the footage that I’ve seen, Egypt is probably the worst [in terms of] the slaughterhouses,” she said. 

We asked the Department of Agriculture if it was aware that Irish animals sent to facilities in Spain may be further transported onward to North Africa and the Middle East but it did not answer this query.

In part two of TRADE OFF, we investigate concerns over cattle exported directly from Ireland on the long sea journey to North Africa and the Middle East.  

Design for TRADE OFF project - Head of a calf behind a metal gate

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