The dark side of dairy

Did you catch the BBC’s Dark Side of Dairy documentary?

This weekend, a BBC News exposé on the dairy industry caused something of a stir. The feature was based on The Dark Side of Dairy, a documentary by BBC Scotland which aired earlier in the week. The second episode in the series Disclosure, the documentary focuses primarily on the separation of calves from their mothers, and the long, arduous journeys faced by many Scottish calves as part of the live export process.

Talking about the separation of calves and mothers, one dairy farmer admits, “some mothers bawl for days”, which will come as no surprise to parents watching the programme – and was visibly distressing for the farmer to discuss. The documentary then follows the journey of these calves, at just a few weeks old, first to Ireland then to continental Europe, with many destined for Spain. Here, the calves are fattened for slaughter, or even transported to the Middle East and Africa, where welfare and slaughter conditions are nothing short of shocking.

The documentary has stirred up discussion and led to some key changes of heart, mind, and even policy. Samantha Poling, the journalist behind the programme, has written an article detailing how her views changed as she learned more, and speaks of being particularly shaken by witnessing the change in demeanor of pigs being led from a truck to an abattoir. Samantha describes the way she watched realisation dawning on these intelligent, perceptive animals, and how disturbed she was by the way they frantically fought to the back of the truck in the hopes of avoiding their fate.

P&O, a major ferry operator which used to transport calves to Ireland for ongoing journeys to Europe, ceased to do so immediately after the documentary aired. Their statement stressed they “place the highest priority on animal welfare across all routes and were shocked by the scenes in last night’s documentary”, raising questions about how much the company actually knew about the conditions the animals were transported in prior to the investigation being aired.

Left: Male dairy calves are too often discarded as a by-product of an exploitative industry. Photo courtesy of Viva!

Here at Goodheart Farm Animal Sanctuary, these issues resonate deeply, not only because we are a team of animal-lovers and advocates for plant-based diets, but also because of our very own Jersey calves. Although not Scottish, our six boys fell in to the same category as those featured in the documentary: each waste products of the dairy industry, surplus to requirements and set to be disposed of in the cheapest way possible. Before being rescued by Goodheart, they were facing slaughter for veal, an industry closely linked to dairy and where many males calves end up. When we spend time interacting with the gentle, playful, loving individuals these Jersey calves have blossomed into, it really brings home the crux of the problem with dairy farming: that babies are not by-products, and any industry which relies upon this premise should not be supported. 

To see a documentary like this produced by a mainstream broadcaster is promising and positive for the spread of a message we believe in wholeheartedly. The coverage is by no means perfect, and there have been very valid arguments made that the documentary does not go far enough in exposing the many dark sides of dairy, but we are hopeful this increased discussion around farming continues to gain momentum and capture the hearts of the British public. This comes at an important time, as Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, seems to have backtracked on his intention to consider banning live exports after Brexit. In April, those who have been campaigning for many years celebrated when Gove held a consultation on the proposed ban, but as of last Wednesday he would commit to only “restrict animal exports and… safeguard animal welfare”. This comes as a disappointment to all those who wish to see live export banned, and has led to calls for clarity and commitment on Gove’s part. Many of us will be watching closely to see how this develops.  

If you haven’t seen The Dark Side of Dairy, you can watch it on BBC iPlayer now. And if you have, please let us know your thoughts on the programme, and remember that by supporting the work of Goodheart you are helping to work towards a world where no animal is disposable.