A ship carrying 4500 dairy cows has begun its journey to China after being cleared by authorities.

The breeding cows left Napier's port on Wednesday night aboard a ship owned by Saudi businessman Sheikh Hmood Ali Al Khalaf and are scheduled to arrive in China in 15 days.

Mr Al Khalaf was at the centre of a long-running controversy over the export of 900 pregnant ewes to his Saudi Arabian farm two years ago.

Nearly all the lambs, born after the ewes arrived, died in the desert.


However, Ministry for Primary Industries director animal and animal products Paul Dansted says his team has worked hard to guarantee the welfare of the cows aboard this shipment.

He said MPI vets had given them a clean bill of health and examined their export vessel, Awassi Express, to ensure it had safe holding pens and adequate feed and ventilation.

"They must also have medicines and equipment for treating animals in case any become unwell during the journey," he said.

"If unusual levels of mortality or sickness occur during the voyage, the ship's master is to report this immediately to MPI."

The original application was for 5300 cows for a dairy operation in China, but the ship is now carrying 800 fewer animals.

It also comes as the Labour Party and animal rights activists had questioned whether the shipment should go ahead.

Animal rights activist Hans Kriek, director of SAFE, says the cows will be slaughtered in China at the end of their working lives and there is no guarantee that will be done humanely.