The sight of a dairy herd grazing upon a grassy field is a ubiquitous one in Britain and Europe, appearing on the labels of dairy products that we consume, as well as in the countryside itself. Yet it represents only a part of the European dairy industry.
What of the cows that we do not see? Those with little or no access to those fields, those who are tethered and those who are pushed to their limits by excessive milk production? This may not be a familiar image to many of us, but it is the stark reality for a shockingly high proportion of dairy cows across Europe.
Last summer my charity, Compassion in World Farming, carried out a series of undercover investigations at over 50 farms in Germany, Denmark and Spain, to find out what conditions were like for dairy cows in the EU. We were appalled by what we found.
Many cows were living in zero-graze conditions, without access to pasture, with room only to stand up, lie down, and move a few steps in any direction. In Germany, 11 of the 14 farms we visited kept their cows tethered with chains in 'tie-stalls', some of them for the whole year. Living spaces were often barren and without straw, leading to painful sores and swollen joints from the hard floor, and some cows were found sitting in their own faeces. These cows were frequently forced to their limits to produce high yields of milk, becoming bony with exhaustion, and slaughtered, often at a young age, when their yield began to diminish. It makes for harrowing reading, I know. It's even harder to see.
This research comes from just three countries, but is, we suspect, a good representation of dairy farming across Europe. It is estimated that over one third of dairy cows in the EU are 'zero-grazed' and that a further one fifth are tethered in tie-stalls for at least part of the year. Even in the UK, it is estimated that 10% of dairy cows spend their whole life indoors.
It seems ludicrous that such injustices should be legal, but the problem is, dairy cows are not specifically protected by EU law. Unlike other farm animals, such as poultry and pigs, there is no EU legislation which refers to dairy cow welfare specifically.
Last October, Compassion joined with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and ice cream maker Ben and Jerry's in forming the Supporting Better Dairy coalition. The aim of our campaign is to urge the European Commission to bring in a species-specific Directive in order to ensure a set of minimum welfare standards for dairy cows across Europe. Today (23 October) we will present the signatures of more than 250,000 EU citizens who agree to a representative of the European Commission.
We believe that every cow should have access to pasture during the grass-growing season, and be liberated from cruel practices such as tethering that we encountered in our investigations. Cows should be fed in a way that meets their dietary needs, not purely to increase milk production, and there must be measures put in place to prevent their pain and suffering.
Cows are intelligent, sentient beings that deserve our respect and better protection. It is my hope that this meeting will be a significant step towards the much needed action for ensuring dairy cow welfare.
Information about Compassion's investigation can be found here.