EC audit finds calf exports from Ireland breach transport regulations

The European Commission (EC) recently confirmed that Ireland is breaking the law when exporting unweaned calves to Europe. This is an issue that EFI has known about, and been campaigning against, for many years. Calves are typically exported from Ireland by Irish Ferries and Stena Line. Both ferry companies continue to export calves, despite knowing that the trade is being conducted illegally.

Why are infant calves exported?

Young Irish dairy bulls exported to Israel via Romania 2024

The export of unweaned calves is mainly linked to dairy farms because cows must calve in order to produce milk. Ireland’s bloated dairy industry has seen a year-on-year increase in the number of calves exported since 2015. In 2023, over 183,000 calves under 6 weeks of age were exported from Ireland to mainland Europe.

Calves can be as young as 15 days old when exported on long distances (in excess of 8 hours). Whilst it’s mostly unwanted male dairy calves, a surplus of females from the industry are also exported.

Dairy and veal are well connected partners. So in the case of Ireland, calves typically end up at veal farms in the Netherlands. However, many Irish calves will suffer a worse fate, travelling to other EU countries, including Spain, Hungary and Romania, only to find themselves re-exported to countries with minimal welfare legislation, such as Libya, Israel and Lebanon. At this point, they’re no longer afforded protection consistent with EU’s baseline welfare standards.

Overview of audit report findings

In June 2022, the European Commission carried out a comprehensive audit on the export of calves from Ireland and published their report late December 2023. The objective was to assess the effectiveness of the official measures in place to protect unweaned calves (still on a milk diet) during long journeys.

The EC investigation examined national policy, calf health, transport, relationships with other member states, and compliance with EU policy. The audit report praised the Irish export system for some of its welfare measures. However, it noted several issues around enforcement and record keeping.

Specifically, the report highlighted current gaps in DAFM’s export model as follows:

  • The suitability of transporters’ contingency plans in terms of calf welfare in cases of emergency.
  • A lack of record keeping on the outcome of the verification of official controls. This in turn affects authorities’ ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of their controls, and to detect failures and take effective measures when needed.
  • The absence of enforcement regarding the requirement to feed unweaned calves on the roll-on roll-off vessel.

Notably, the most glaring welfare gap is around feeding. The issue being that the current export model is based on the conclusion that unweaned calves can be transported in excess of 19 hours without being fed. The DAFM’s morally questionable position is that prolonged starvation doesn’t cause undue suffering to calves. Rather, they are of the opinion that current legislation does not state animals must be fed, it is just a recommendation that they are.

Ultimately, this is a poor reflection of DAFM’s approach to calf welfare during export. And, conveniently, by interpreting current welfare legislation in this way, it means DAFM can continue with business as usual.

What veterinary science says about calf export

The Federation of Veterinarians Europe (FVE) has consistently expressed concern around live export in general. Their position is that animals should be transported as little as possible, as any movement of animals is inherently stressful both with regards to the actual transport, but also with regards to removal from known surroundings and known peers to a new environment, and potentially unknown handlers and other animals.

FVE’s stance is that transport can lead to potentially negative impacts on the health and welfare of animals. This can range from sensory stress, heat stress, to disease, injuries, and even death. Understandably, therefore, the Federation recommends that unweaned calves should be transported for a maximum of 4 hours. FVE’s interest is based around optimum calf welfare. What’s accepted by many veterinary experts is that there is an intrinsic link between long-distance travel, and poor animal health and suffering.

The body of a dead calf at a control post in Cherbourg ©L214

Welfare regulations in place to protect calves

Current EU law asserts that calves must be fed after 19 hours of travel. In the case of Irish calves, they will have had their last feed several hours before being loaded for export. Because calves cannot be fed while in transit, their feeding requirements are routinely ignored.

In normal circumstances, an unweaned calf will feed from their mother every 3 hours and consume 8 -12 litres of milk per day. Calves exported from Ireland are going without sustenance for 30 – 40 hours. By approving calf export, DAFM is ensuring a prolonged period of food deprivation for infant animals dependent on milk.

Breaches of Regulation 1/2005 and further studies on welfare

Those who follow EFI’s work will likely be familiar with Regulation 1/2005 on the protection of animals during transport. The regulation stipulates that – ‘no person shall transport animals or cause animals to be transported in a way likely to cause injury or undue suffering to them’. This is a baseline legal requirement that’s meant to ensure that an animal’s fundamental needs are protected. It seems obvious to suggest that withholding food would certainly fall into the realm of causing suffering.

Teagasc commissioned Frontiers in Veterinary Science to conduct a study on the transport of unweaned calves in April and May 2022. It concluded that calves showed a decline in their physiological status during the journey between Ireland and the Netherlands. Changes were most obvious during the ferry journey between Ireland and France. It found that calves suffered from dehydration, hypoglycaemia and weight loss.  The calves in the study were aged between 26 and 32 days old, which is older than many exported calves who are just 15-days old.

DAFM does concede that their opinion is not in line with recommendations by the European Food and Safety Authority that published a scientific opinion in September 2022. The report stated that calves should not be transported for more than 8 hours as they must be fed every 12 hours, and need to rest for 2 – 3 hours after each feed. The report stated that calves must be given milk or milk replacer, electrolytes are not sufficient.

EFI follows up with complaint to European Commission

The EC has been reluctant to initiate action against the DAFM’s export practise without hard evidence, and a previous complaint submitted by EFI in 2021 was not upheld.  The Commission’s audit report now provides sufficient evidence in order to take action. EFI submitted a further formal complaint to the EC promptly after the report’s publication. We would like to see the Commission act on its findings regarding the DAFM’s legal obligations towards calves who are exported, and proceed with an infringement procedure against the Department.

EFI will publicise the EC’s response to our request once received.


Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine –

Federation of Veterinarians Europe –


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