Animal welfare groups have slammed as "cruel and brutal" the treatment of very young calves from Ireland at a French lairage, or holding facility, at Couville in Cherbourg.

The unweaned calves bound for veal farms in the Netherlands must be unloaded, fed and rested after their 18-hour ferry crossing from Rosslare under EU Transport Regulations.

Video, captured in March and published in recent days by Eyes on Animals (EoA) and French welfare organisation L214, appears to show workers at the holding facility hitting the calves with sticks, prodding them with a pitchfork and banging on their feeding stations with wavin pipes.

One animal is kicked and another is dragged on his back after collapsing.

He is later euthanised by a vet.

Speaking to RTÉ, Dairy Specialist George Ramsbottom of Teagasc said: "It's likely the calves are really hungry after a long journey from Ireland.

"What they've consumed is probably enough to keep them going. I’d say there was pressure on the workers to feed all of the calves in as short a period of time as possible".

He added: "It is in everyone’s interest that the highest standards of animal welfare are adhered to."

Lesley Moffat, director of EoA, is urging the EU to ban all live exports. She said: "It is very disturbing that this trade route, which has been violating the EU regulation on minimum feeding times and humane handling of unweaned calves for years now, is still going on."

Ms Moffat's team estimated that the calves had been on the road for around 23 hours without milk or milk-replacer, which well above the legal maximum of 18 hours.

Ireland has increased its milk production by 50% since milk quotas were lifted five years ago.

Bull calves are of little value and live exports to veal farms on the continent are seen as a vital outlet and also key to ensuring competition in the market place for Irish farmers.

Recent figures from Bord Bia show 295,000 animals were exported from Ireland in 2019 with calves accounting for almost 200,000 of this number.

Meanwhile, the Government has said it remains committed to maintaining the trade.