By choosing plant-based milks and other non-dairy products in the supermarket, this suffering is entirely eliminated.
Not many people know what I do for a living. If I met you and you asked, I’d have to lie. Because the truth is I’m an undercover investigator, commissioned by animal rights charities to go into farms and slaughterhouses to expose the lived reality that farmed animals experience every day.
I never imagined I’d be doing this job. I never would have thought I’d be able to – I’ve always found footage of animal cruelty too harrowing. But after walking by a local farm, and seeing the horrifying sight of chickens being slaughtered just metres from a public footpath, almost unthinkingly I began to film what I was seeing. That chance encounter made me want to shine a light on the other hidden aspects of animal agriculture.
In the five years I’ve been doing this job, I’ve had to become hardened to what I witness as a coping mechanism. I’ve seen some terrible things over the years, and not much shocks me anymore, but even I was unprepared for what I was about to discover during my next assignment.
Back in October 2020, I was commissioned by Animal Justice Project to investigate a dealer slaughtering newborn dairy calves. Before undertaking every investigation, I do as much research as possible. I already knew that male calves are considered worthless to the dairy industry because they do not produce milk and worthless to the beef industry due to their breeding.
So worthless, in fact, that they’re referred to as ‘grass rats’ and ‘mongrels’ within the farming community. I read a lot of online farming forums and industry media as part of my job. I also knew that these calves were either shot on farms at just a day old or sold cheaply at ‘livestock’ markets, often for as little as a few pounds.
What I didn’t know about was the involvement of slaughter dealers (known in the farming community as ‘the killing boys’), who buy these unwanted and unweaned male calves from markets and dairy farms. This is the dark side of the dairy industry, and it’s hidden from consumers for a reason.
Our five-month investigation – which involved secretly filming at Oaklands Livestock Centre, a major calf dealer in Shrewsbury, and G & GB Hewitt slaughterhouse in Chester – was the first of its kind. And none of us quite anticipated what we would uncover.
Going through the footage, we documented a sickening culture of abuse amongst Oaklands’ workers towards the calves, who were thrown down trailer and truck ramps after long, cramped journeys, lifted by their tails, kicked, kneed, punched, hit with sticks, dragged by their ears and had gates rammed on their delicate legs. These weren’t isolated instances; this casual brutality constituted the majority of our footage.
These week-old babies are tiny and often still unsteady on their feet. They are like any young animal – inquisitive and curious about their new surroundings. Our footage within the shed at Oaklands holding yard showed them entering their temporary new ‘home’ after spending often long periods on the truck or at market, and afterwards being brutally hurled off the truck.
After regaining their bearings once inside the pens, some would look joyous and even playful with each other at their newfound freedom. But this picture rapidly changed. After more than 21 hours being deprived of food and water, the calves continually cried out for their one basic need not being met. These are unweaned babies who would naturally be feeding from their mothers continuously throughout the day.
Their crying continued long into the night, it was the noise we would hear at some distance walking across the fields approaching the site. On entering the shed it was immediately apparent these babies had no access to food or water, held within barren concrete pens with minimal straw bedding.
It was distressing watching them frantically suckling at anything they could – the metal bars, each other’s ears and tails, my protective coveralls as I leant in to film them. They cried out constantly, desperately trying to communicate their thirst and hunger to me.
We filmed Oaklands’ owner, Derek Whittall, taking tiny calves as young as nine days old straight from market to Hewitt slaughterhouse. Here, he left them in a cold, damp lairage overnight in the depths of winter. No food, no warmth, no comfort in their final hours.
Inside the slaughterhouse, my entire body tensed in reaction to the stench of death (the only way to describe the disgusting and intoxicating smell that lingers at the back of my throat for hours afterwards).
It’s always unnerving entering a stun room, with all its equipment and shackles, but the worst is the kill room, with its remnants of blood and body parts on the floor, and huge knives lined up ready on the side.
But the fear I am feeling of encountering someone as I install our hidden cameras is nothing compared to what these tiny calves will experience in their final terrifying hours on earth.
Our findings only got worse. Calves at Hewitt slaughterhouse were being killed almost a minute after stunning. Going through the rest of the footage, it became evident this wasn’t an aberration. This was tiny calf after tiny calf being killed almost four times longer than legally required.
These are calves that have come from award-winning farms, from well-known Muller farms, and from farms supplying major supermarkets like Sainsbury’s. But when you put a price on a life – particularly a low one – it is hardly surprising that the people responsible for them treat them as unfeeling, worthless commodities, not frightened babies who long for the comfort of their mothers.
The majority of supermarkets and milk processors have recently banned the shooting of day-old male calves on dairy farms.
Even Red Tractor has implemented changes, which means at least 95 percent of milk produced in the UK will have come from dairies banning the ‘routine euthanasia’ of calves on farm by 2023.
This sounds like good news for male calves, but in reality the banning of calf slaughter on farms doesn’t actually end it. In fact, it may even increase the numbers of calves ending up in slaughterhouses, as prohibiting calves being shot on farms means even more calves end up at the mercy of slaughter dealers.
All that changes from these public-appeasing policies set out to supposedly ‘safeguard’ these newborn calves is that another intermediary now has the blood on their hands, not the dairy farmers themselves.
Last year in the UK, a staggering 65,000 male dairy calves under a month old were slaughtered. But the good news is that the solution to killing ‘unwanted’ calves lies not with the dairy industry or even with the government, but with the consumer.
By choosing plant-based milks and other non-dairy products in the supermarket, this suffering is entirely eliminated. Fortunately, the demand for vegan food is rising exponentially, whether it’s because of people’s concern for their own health, the health of the planet, the risk of future pandemics, or because of the unimaginable cruelty farmed animals are forced to endure.
Right now I’m researching for my next investigation, and if someone happens to ask me what I do for a living, I’ll have to lie. And there’s a reason the people I secretly film won’t tell others the truth either: they make their living by taking day-old baby cows away from their mothers and killing them. But the dairy industry has been hiding its secret for long enough. It’s time people knew the truth.
Anonymous is an undercover investigator specialising in capturing evidence of animal welfare abuses in the meat industry. The veracity of their claims have been confirmed by the Animal Justice Project and footage supporting the allegations in this article has been made public.