Ireland has more than 6.7 million cattle, producing approximately 2.4 million calves annually. This results in almost 1.7 million cattle being presented for slaughter, of which we export almost 90%. Almost 1.8 million cattle and 750,000 sheep were traded through the livestock marts in 2018 and live exports number between 200,000 and 300,000 animals depending on the year. This trade in live animals is vital to maintaining competition in the marketplace and acts as a countervailing force against the beef processing sector which is dominated by four private companies. Ireland has always been a provider of live cattle for export to Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, other European countries and third countries such as Turkey as well as countries in north Africa. As a nation, we consume approximately 10% of what we produce and in 2018, Ireland produced more than 480,000 tonnes of beef meat for export.
The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is only approximately 75% self-sufficient in beef meat and must import approximately 350,000 tonnes of additional beef to satisfy national demand. Ireland supplies the vast majority of this imported beef meat as one would expect given our proximity to the UK market. In 2018, Ireland produced and exported more than 250,000 tonnes of beef meat to the UK representing almost 70% of total British beef imports. With Brexit only six weeks away, we should be promoting live exports to all possible countries to counteract the potential drop in sales volumes into the UK, especially if a hard Brexit were to result in large tariffs on beef and sheep meat.
It will not be in the Irish beef and sheep farmers' best interest if this valuable source of competition is lost with little or no real scientific argument to back it up, other than emotive stances taken by non-governmental organisations, NGOs. The beef processing industries and large multiples would be delighted with a ban on live exports as it would allow them to stifle and manipulate to the greatest extent possible the prices the primary producer receives. The meat industry and UK multiples are fully aware that prices rise when live exports are buoyant. Ensuring the live trade is hindered ensures a depressed live trade price and a cheaper price for the raw material for them. Irish and all European farmers need to get a fair and true market value for their stock and this can only be achieved when there are multiple avenues of competition for livestock.
Irish livestock marts adhere to stringent EU legislation, as do the companies that export live animals. Maintaining high animal welfare standards is not just the right thing to do. It is also good business practice as any animal that becomes poorly or dies during transport represents an economic loss and nobody wants that to occur.
It is of great importance that the live export sector is heavily regulated. Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005 has been enacted to the letter of the law by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. If all EU countries ensured compliance with Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005, the NGOs would have very little cause for complaint with EU transporters of cattle and sheep. The real issue with live animal transport in the EU is that current legislation is not being enforced in some eastern European member states and the reaction by NGOs and some Members of the European Parliament is simply to ban the transport of live animals. This is flawed logic. The consumer demands high animal welfare standards and ICOS agrees with that approach. However, we need to promote, foster and enhance full compliance in other EU countries because simply banning the transport of all live animals could potentially cause bigger animal welfare issues in the future. For example, if lesser quality dairy calves could not be exported to the Netherlands and Spain, as they have been for the past few years, what would happen to calf prices? Would this trigger animal welfare issues because animals would be become worthless? What we currently have in the form of Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005 does exactly as it states, namely, it provides protection of animals during transport. As long as member states abide by the regulation, there is no animal welfare grounds on which to crudely ban all live exports.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has transposed in Irish law a very stringent interpretation of Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005. While on a practical level some exporters and farmers might not agree with all aspects of the legislation, it safeguards our live exports into the future. Everything has to be done in full compliance with the regulations on stocking densities, disease status, planned routes and unloading at lairages, for example, in France, where calves are fed, given a rest period and then reloaded. All of this has to be properly managed and that is the case.
All transport of live animals, especially animals from Ireland, comes under serious scrutiny from prominent animal welfare groups during peak calf export season. Certain animal welfare lobby groups and action groups monitor us very closely, as do the regulatory bodies whose job it is to supervise this activity. The issue is, therefore, in the public eye. Some lobby groups intentionally stir up emotive arguments on the transport of young calves in particular because these animals are usually only a few weeks old. However, calves are managed properly during transport. It is vital we continue to manage these and other animals in the best possible manner to protect the markets that want to purchase Irish livestock. We want to protect our reputation for raising quality livestock.