A day out in the English countryside is hardly complete without some sort of encounter with cows; grazing contentedly in a distant field, or swatting flies with mud-caked tails while sitting in the sun.
But, behind this idyllic image, lies a reality some of us would rather not dwell on: cattle exist largely so we humans can kill them to eat their meat, or hook them up to machines to harvest their milk. And what's more, how they're treated, as they pass through life on their way to the dairy or slaughterhouse isn't always something we, as a society, can be proud of.
The RSPCA's chief concern is the sharp rise in the number of live cattle that are transported from the UK, across the Channel onto the European mainland. The BSE outbreak in the mid-1990s led to a 10-year, total ban on such transport. But when that ban expired in the summer of 2006, the cattle trucks started rolling again (although they have been restricted once more of late, due to the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth and bluetongue).
In the second half of last year alone, over 128,000 live animals were shipped across the Channel, a trade almost solely consisting of young male calves, destined to be fattened and slaughtered for veal meat, in countries, such as France and Germany, where veal is a popular dish. The calves concerned are usually those born within dairy herds in the UK, but unwanted, since they have no milking potential.
The RSPCA is opposed to live long-distance transportation on principle, arguing there is no reason why animals can't be fattened and slaughtered locally, and the meat exported.
It cites evidence that transportation can, and too often does, cause unacceptable conditions for animals loaded onto a lorry and driven hundreds of miles in cramped conditions. Without proper monitoring and care by the truck drivers, this can cause dehydration, hunger, injury and even death to the calves.
There is legislation governing such transport, but the RSPCA says it's just not strong enough.
"It fails to take account of scientific evidence about the effects of live transport on different animals, and therefore in a number of areas fails to protect them adequately from the inherent risks – whether the journey is short or long," argues Dr Julia Wrathall, head of the society's Farm Animals Science Department.
The second main area of concern is how all cattle are looked after on farms within the UK. Here, again, the RSPCA maintains that existing legislation isn't working well enough.
All farms are subject to inspections by government vets, some pre-announced and others random. Results from all these visits last year show that, where breaches of the regulations were found, the animals involved were, in the majority of cases, beef cattle or calves. Where the inspection had been triggered by a complaint from a third party, inspectors found a breach in 50 per cent of cases. In all other instances, the breach rate was 15 per cent. The most common failings were lack of proper treatment of diseased animals and poor housing and staffing arrangements.
"The inspection reports highlight the fact that in too many cases, farms aren't complying with the legislation, which means that animals aren't being treated the way they should be," says Dr Wrathall.
"We welcome the Government's commitment to measuring welfare outcomes on farms rather than just input. However, more farms need to be visited if we are to build up a true picture."