An animal export company faces legal action after painting children’s cartoon character Shaun the Sheep on one of its boats.

Latvian-registered RV Joline has been transporting calves and sheep across the English Channel from Ramsgate to Calais since May this year.

But the vessel has incurred the wrath of animal welfare campaigners after it was photographed painted with two images of Shaun the Sheep.

The pictures were spotted by the RSPCA, which opposes the live export trade and alerted Shaun the Sheep creators Aardman Animations.

A spokeswoman for Aardman said the company wanted the pictures removed.

“It wasn’t done with our permission,” she told Farmers Weekly. “Our legal team have been alerted and they are looking to contact the boat owners.”

The RSPCA claims the boat is unsuitable for carrying livestock. With an average speed of six knots, it can take six hours to cross the English Channel.

Originally built to transport military vehicles across rivers, the vessel has been upgraded for ocean transit and can carry six articulated lorries.

“The ship has a very shallow bottom making it unsteady in rough sea conditions,” said Julia Wrathall, head of the RSPCA’s farm animal science team.

“The design of the ship coupled with the journey time and the likelihood that sea conditions will worsen over winter, means that the Joline is completely unsuitable and should not be used to transport animals.”

Animal welfare rules mean the maximum legal journey time for unweaned calves is nine hours with an hour rest and then a further nine hours travel.

“The boat already has a long journey time across the channel,” said Ms Wrathall. The

Boat should have its licence revoked, she added.

“Any hold-up in port or during the trip could put the hauliers in danger of breaking EU laws governing journey times.”

The RSPCA has launched an online petition calling for an eight-hour journey time limit when live transport rules are reviewed by the EU later this year.

But the NFU said the issue of live animal transport should be “put in perspective”.

NFU chief dairy adviser Robert Newbery said the free trade and movement of farm animals between EU member states was a legitimate and lawful activity.

“There is nothing illegal or inherently wrong about moving animals from one part of Europe to another, provided they are well-cared for both in transit and in rearing.”

Livestock were inspected and subject to strict legislative controls focused on guaranteeing high standards of animal health and welfare, said Mr Newbery.

“The NFU supports these controls and has continuously argued for a high standard of enforcement across all EU member states.”

The RV Joline is owned and operated by Dutch national John Onderwater, who could not be contacted.