Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Wednesday 18 April 2001


Update on Foot-and-Mouth
Disease Outbreak

Membership and Powers

The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order No 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and has a role in the initiation of legislation. The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.

The Committee has power:

The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 29 November 1999 has been as follows:

Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr George Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr PJ Bradley
Mr John Dallat*
Mr Boyd Douglas
Mr David Ford
Mr Gardiner Kane
Mr Gerry McHugh
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.

* Mr Dallat replaced Mr Denis Haughey on the latter's appointment as a Junior Minister.

Wednesday 18 April 2001

Members present:
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Douglas
Mr Dallat
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr Molloy
Mr Paisley Jnr

Ms B Rodgers, Minister )
Dr B McCracken ) Department of Agriculture
Mr S Johnston ) and Rural Development


The Chairperson: I welcome the Minister and her officials to the meeting.


Ms Rodgers: A great deal has happened since I last provided an update to the Committee on 5 April. No doubt the Committee will be aware of what I am about to say, but it is important that I bring everyone to the same level of knowledge.


The Committee will recall that in my letter I reported that we had received regionalised status for much of Northern Ireland. With some difficulty we mounted a substantial exercise to seal off the Newry and Mourne District Council area against exports of the relevant animals and products and we seemed to be on course for full regionalisation on 19 April, which is tomorrow. However, during the week following the Committee's last meeting and my letter, we became aware of a possible outbreak at Ardboe. There were some puzzling aspects to the symptoms shown there, which made it possible that something other than foot-and-mouth disease was at work, but, as always, we imposed restrictions and carried out tests.


Members will recall that on 12 April we received the results of the preliminary test from Pirbright indicating that it was not foot-and-mouth disease. Members will also recall that there was great public interest and, as we have always done, we announced that result albeit with the reminder that it was subject to confirmation via other tests. To my great surprise the results of those further tests, received on Good Friday night, were positive, thus giving Northern Ireland its second foot-and-mouth disease case. As the Committee is aware, that was followed on Saturday, 14 April, by the discovery of another suspect in Cushendall, which was duly confirmed.


Since then there have been other suspects, hot and cold, but we currently have only the confirmed outbreaks mentioned and one hot suspect in the Ardboe 3km zone. The animals concerned have been slaughtered. As you will be aware, the preliminary test results from the suspect are negative, but in the light of last week's experiences, we are not acting in relation to the slaughter in that case until we receive confirmation in the next few days. The usual 3km and 10km zones are in place around the outbreaks and all infected in-contact animals have been slaughtered and incinerated.


My staff are presently slaughtering other animals on a precautionary basis. There is evidence that the present situation is a consequence of a virus circulating in sheep in which the symptoms are not apparent. Therefore, I have placed a complete ban on the movement of livestock. This will allow us to carry out the necessary tracing of animals and to prevent further spread of the disease. I fully appreciate the impact of these restrictions on farmers, and tomorrow I will make a decision about the welfare aspect and on whether to permit the movement of livestock to immediate slaughter.


Sadly, while I am still working to find out precisely how the disease has spread, it is crystal clear that - leaving aside illegal imports from GB - some farmers have continued to move livestock within Northern Ireland after we knew that we had been affected by foot-and-mouth disease and after such movements had been banned or controlled. My priority is to discover the extent of those movements and thus of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland.


I have extended serological testing to all sheep within the 10km zones around our outbreaks in order to determine the extent of the virus in those areas, and I will be widening that exercise in due course. We are in the process of accessing additional veterinary manpower by contracting private veterinary practitioners to carry out work for the Department. Agri-food industry representatives have been kept fully briefed on the situation throughout the Easter period. The interdepartmental group of officials met to discuss the situation on 14 April and were charged with identifying additional manpower. They will report back later today.


We met with RUC and Army representatives on 14 April and 15 April and we will meet them again later today. As a result, the Army is now assisting with the disposal operation under the direction of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The police continue to assist with the checking of movements, road closures, et cetera. Representatives from both organisations have now been applying to liaise with the Department and are based in Dundonald House.


Following what appeared to be a complete closure of the border to exports of all Northern Ireland produce on 14 April, my representations to the Dublin Department have led to the resumption of permitted exports, though there were problems over the Easter holiday, which I will be discussing with Joe Walsh later today.


Evidence shows that a lax observation of fortress farming principles, if not downright unauthorised or illegal movement of livestock, have led to these outbreaks. Against this background, I have been trying to drive home the message that responsibility for disease control rests primarily with farmers. The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) and the Northern Ireland Agriculture Producers Association (NIAPA) have been helpful in getting the message across. In fact, I had already initiated a four-week publicity campaign to emphasise that very point. I am writing to every sheep farmer in Northern Ireland later today to seek any information they might have about the purchases of sheep from markets over the weeks prior to the outbreak. We have been providing technical and moral support to farmers and rural communities through helplines and local liaison channels, which they can use, if necessary.


There has been some public confusion about the Department of Agriculture's slaughter policy. The normal sequence of events is that all infected animals are slaughtered and incinerated. Pigs in the surrounding 3km zone are slaughtered next, followed by sheep and cattle in the surrounding 1km zone. Any suspected at-risk animals are slaughtered subsequently. That means that when new outbreaks occur the focus may shift from low-risk slaughter in one area to high risk slaughter in another. As far as disposal is concerned, infected animals must be incinerated on site, but carcasses may be incinerated, buried or rendered, depending on the circumstances.


Arguments in favour of vaccination are emerging. Current veterinary advice is that the immediate slaughter of animals around the outbreak provides the best protection against spread of the disease. Vaccination, by contrast, takes several days to take effect and is a less desirable option. Although it can be a valuable weapon against foot-and-mouth disease, vaccination has serious drawbacks, which make it a weapon of last resort.


We must be prepared for further outbreaks in Northern Ireland and the number of them will dictate the scale of the resource problems we face. A significant number of widely scattered outbreaks will create more problems than if they are grouped geographically. Our response to the potential manpower pressures includes greater use of private sector vets. Secondly the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has undertaken to co-ordinate an exercise to determine what resources might be available from within the Northern Ireland Civil Service and from the wider public sector should they be needed.


As far as physical resources are concerned there may be pressure on slaughtering capacity. I am in dialogue with the meat plants, which have offered to help to establish options for the solution of that problem. There will be pressure on disposal capacity. I have asked the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture to identify a possible site or sites for mass burial, should that be needed. The Executive Committee has declared its support and I have been assured that whatever resources are necessary to deal with this issue will be made available.


The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Social Security Agency have been asked to consider what additional counselling and cash may be needed to help the farmers.


In conclusion, the situation remains serious and the farming community needs to take responsibility for its own salvation. All the efforts of the Executive and myself will come to nought unless farmers take every step possible to protect themselves and their fellow farmers from this disease. Dealing with the foot-and- mouth disease outbreak will be a joint effort. I will be carrying out serological testing and acting to trace all the relevant sheep movements. Farmers must ensure that the virus is locked up by observing the movement restrictions I have put in place. I would appeal to the farmers to let my Department, any public representative, the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), or the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association (NIAPA) if they prefer, to have details of any irregular movements of livestock that they know about.


The Chairperson: Thank you Minister.


Do you believe that the false negative result received in the Ardboe case, which resulted in the standing down of controls, contributed in any way to the further outbreaks? Can you assure the Committee that the cancellation of that precautionary cull in County Armagh was not premature?


Ms Rodgers: That has not contributed in any way as controls were not stepped down. There is a misunderstanding about that matter. When we received the preliminary negative result we retained the restriction on the farm until we got the final confirmation. That has been the procedure all along.


The Chairperson: Was there not to be a cull then? Was it held back as a result?


Ms Rodgers: The policy is that in the situation where we have a hot suspect we wait for the preliminary negative result.


The action taken depends on the situation. If there are other indications that there is a foot-and-mouth case then the vets will make a judgement. In case of the Donnelly farm they were dealing with an out-farm. There were five other farms involved and none of the animals on those farms were showing any signs of the disease. That suggested that it was not a case of foot-and- mouth disease. Additionally, there was excellent animal husbandry practised on that farm and the indications, particularly when we got the preliminary negative result, were that this was not a case of foot-and-mouth disease. It would probably have been considered to be over the top to slaughter a pedigree herd immediately. As soon as we received the positive result we moved in immediately to slaughter the animals. We have made decisions on that basis all along.


When we had clinical indications of the disease in a herd 3km away from the Donnelly farm, we moved immediately to begin the slaughter process. We probably did this because it was near the Donnelly case that had been confirmed as positive. That farm would probably have been included in the cull anyway but we began the slaughter process immediately. There was a preliminary negative result but we slaughtered the animals as a precaution, for obvious reasons. We have not got the final result yet.


The Chairperson: Is there a possibility of a link being established between the original illegal imports of sheep and the outbreak now? What are your main suspected reasons for how the new outbreaks started?


Ms Rodgers: The Department's investigation unit is looking into all possibilities urgently. There is a possibility of a link with the original illegal imports but we are looking at all possibilities and I cannot be any more definite at the moment.


The Chairperson: Minister, we have heard you and your Department officials on radio and television and you seem to have great concerns about the illegal movements of sheep. How many sheep are being moved illegally and what legal power do you really have to prevent the animals being moved without permits?


Ms Rodgers: There are illegal movements of sheep from Great Britain and there were illegal movements of sheep in the Meigh incident. There is also unauthorised movement, which is movement without licence, in the current situation. If people move animals without licence they are breaking the law and our investigation unit will pass that information to the police, who will proceed with the case from there.


The Chairperson: How does the Department get information about the illegal movement of sheep?


Ms Rodgers: The police are stopping vehicles and are trying to ensure that there is no illegal or unauthorised movement. I have been appealing for information. We have information about licensed, authorised movements. It is very important to have licenses so that we can immediately trace any movements if there is an outbreak. We have asked for information and we are getting a lot of information from the ordinary, decent, farming community who want to help us stop the disease from spreading. Information is coming from the farming organisations, through my Department, on our phone lines and through our divisional veterinary officers (DVO). We are urgently following up on any information that we are given at the moment.


The Chairperson: At the beginning, there was a promise made that action would be taken on the illegal movement of sheep. With regard to the first cases, is there any action pending?


Ms Rodgers: I cannot say because I do not have those details, but if any action is taken I will put that information in the public domain immediately and I will inform you, Dr Paisley, and the Deputy Chairperson immediately. If the sheep move, the virus moves with them and that is the real danger.


The Chairperson: Pig farmers have been lobbying heavily about welfare schemes. Last Friday you informed the Committee about a welfare slaughter scheme for pig farmers in the south Armagh surveillance area. Was this slaughter completed before the current crisis, or was it continuing?


Ms Rodgers: That slaughter was completed before the current crisis. There were extenuating circumstances in that case because the pigs had been locked up for a long time and there were serious welfare problems.


Mr Douglas: I welcome your statement, which was very comprehensive. At present, there seems to be a very rigorous policing of the precautions that are in place, which is important. I am on record as having highlighted at least four times the need for tight precautions at ports and airports. It appears that the current outbreaks are as a result of the earlier importation of stock into the country. Do you feel that you are now receiving better information than that which you were given during the first outbreak in Meigh? There is a good deal of speculation that this is not the case.


Ms Rodgers: At the moment, I am receiving a good deal of specific information about movements, but I need to know everything. We received information in relation to the Meigh outbreak, and that is how we were eventually able to trace all those animals - that is now done and dusted. I am satisfied that the community are co-operating, but I need to know about every movement. If I miss one or two movements, the whole community will be in trouble.


The Chairperson: That is the difficulty. It only takes one breach.


Ms Rodgers: Yes, and it is most important that no further movements occur at this stage and that if anyone becomes aware of any such activity, they contact myself, a public representative, the Department, or their union.


Mr Armstrong: Thank you, Minister, for the information that you have provided in the last week. I appreciate what you have done for me. I am concerned about the importation of sheep from Scotland. You have permits relating to all sheep that have come from Scotland to Northern Ireland over a long period. Have you checked all permits relating to sheep imported into Northern Ireland, including those brought in prior to the Meigh outbreak? I know that when the permits come in with the sheep they are not always checked and that sometimes only 5% of them are inspected. Do you know the whereabouts of the sheep that were imported prior to the Meigh outbreak? Some of those sheep could have been contaminated with foot-and- mouth disease at that time and that could be where our problem lies.


Ms Rodgers: Initially, checks were made of permits dating back to 19 January 2000, but, as a further precaution, we are now checking permits from before that date. We can, of course, make checks where we have the certification to do so. The first infection in Great Britain was detected on 12 February and we traced its incubation period, but we are now looking back beyond that because we have to explore every possible avenue.


Mr Armstrong: Have you checked all the permits relating to imports which took place after the Meigh outbreak?


Ms Rodgers: In relation to the Meigh case, we were able to follow up all the permits dating back from 12 February with the exception of the Bethel consignment which we had to follow up through investigation, co-operation and information gathering because that consignment did not go where it was supposed to. The others, as far as I am aware, went to their intended destinations and they were checked and monitored by us. A good deal of them went immediately to slaughter, which caused no problems.


Mr Armstrong: The Swatragh case raised its head and then died very quickly. What happened there?


Ms Rodgers: Some of the January sheep went to the markets and we are now also tracing the movement of sheep in this way.


Mr Armstrong: Are you satisfied with those animals that went into the south Londonderry area? Are you satisfied that everything there was above board? Are you satisfied with the Swatragh market animals?


Ms Rodgers: Clearly, if we were satisfied we would no longer be carrying out investigations. We are investigating everything and trying to trace animals back to source. It is sometimes difficult to do this because it is now becoming clear that we did not get full information from some people at the time when we originally tracked those animals.


Mr Armstrong: So, you are not content?


Ms Rodgers: No. I am not content that we have got to the bottom of it.


Mr Savage: Minister, you said something this morning that concerned me quite a bit. You said that private-sector veterinary personnel are going to be used. Will bringing in these people create bigger problems for the farms they will be called out to?


Ms Rodgers: They will be working full-time for the Department. As to whether that may cause problems for the farms I cannot say. Our priority is to get on top of this very quickly. We are carrying out serology testing. We have to bring in private veterinary personnel because we have two further outbreaks and we need to allow our own people to do other more important work. It may well have an impact - the private vets will have to work harder than they normally would and cover more cases and more ground.


Mr Savage: That really concerns me because if a vet is called out, and he has been on infected farms earlier in the day, surely that would create a bigger problem.


Ms Rodgers: No. The private-sector vets will be working full-time with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. They will not be working on anything else, for obvious reasons.


Mr Savage: Do we really know how many sheep there are in Northern Ireland?


Ms Rodgers: The census gives a figure of three million approximately. As you are aware it is a moving target.


Mr Savage: One of the issues is that it is very clear what is happening in the South. When people are caught moving sheep illegally there, the sheep are impounded right away and slaughtered and no compensation is paid out.


Ms Rodgers: That is what happened in the Meigh situation.


Mr Savage: I hope that the same policy is introduced here and that the Department takes a firm line. Anything going south over the border is being thoroughly disinfected but the roads coming into Northern Ireland seem to be wide open. We are going to have to take a firmer line if we are really serious about getting this thing under control.


Ms Rodgers: Well, to be quite honest to the Chairperson, that is not the priority at the moment. The priority is at the farm gate and with animal movement. Approximately 90% of the cars and people coming from the South are not going near farms or farm animals. They are going to Belfast, to Derry, and elsewhere. The only danger arises when people come from a farm in the South and go to a farm in the North. You could disinfect a vehicle fully, and the person in the vehicle, having been on a farm in the infected area in the South, could drive into a farmyard in the North, get out of his vehicle walk over and pet a lamb and thus carry the disease into that farm. That is how the disease would be transmitted and we are prioritising our efforts on making sure that nothing gets into a farm through the farm gate or over the hedge from another farm, which is possibly not taking precautions. We are trying to explain to farmers that they need to understand how easily the virus can be carried from farm to farm by people or vehicles.


Mr Savage: I have to come back on this. Farmers are very conscious of the situation. The Department has got to give a lead. Transport is flowing freely along the road from the South. I know of one instance the other day where there were roadblocks and cars were being thoroughly disinfected. When it came through that the Ardboe case was clear the first day, all those things were lifted. I can tell you exactly what is happening.


Ms Rodgers: What things were lifted?


Mr Savage: The results of first tests, which showed that Ardboe was clear, brought a sigh of relief to everybody. The disinfecting of cars was lifted.


Ms Rodgers: Are you talking about the roads at the border?


Mr Savage: I am talking about the roads in and around the infected areas.


Ms Rodgers: Once we had received what looked like a good indication we maintained the restriction - as we always do - that nothing was to go into or out of the farm. If some people went into or out of the farm then I cannot prevent that. The farm is still under restriction.


Mr Savage: This was not at the farm; it was at the border.


Ms Rodgers: Do you mean the border between the South and the North or the border of the zone?


Mr Savage: I mean the border between North and South.


Ms Rodgers: The infection was not in the South; it was in the North.


Mr Savage: I have to be very careful about what I say. The infection has been in the South longer than people realise. It was the case that the surveillance around those areas, the roadblocks and the spraying of cars were relaxed when the first word came through that things were clear. That does not solve the problem.


Ms Rodgers: I am very concerned that any farmer would think that we could stop this by disinfecting cars at the border. To be quite honest, to disinfect a car that has been in contact with the virus you need to wash underneath the car and then disinfect it. I would be very concerned if farmers had the false sense of security that disinfecting a car at the border was enough. That car could proceed on to Belfast and would not be a threat to anyone. The threat is at the farm gate.


The Chairperson: We will have to leave this point because our time is running out. Are any veterinary personnel from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over here at the moment?


Ms Rodgers: No. One of the problems that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has is that they are very short of veterinary personnel.


The Chairperson: There is a rumour that people who have been on farms in the rest of the United Kingdom are over here.


Ms Rodgers: I can reassure you that there is absolutely no truth in the rumour that the vet in one of the outbreak areas had been in Louth. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are trying to bring in vets from central Europe.


Mr Paisley Jnr: I welcome the Minister's statement. I visited the Port of Belfast recently and I was very impressed by the work that officials there were doing on all vehicles coming into Northern Ireland. I hope that those rigorous measures are continued. Perhaps if similar measures were put into place at the border it might allay some of the fears that others have spoken of.


I want to raise a specific constituency matter. It concerns the suspected outbreak in the Glens of Antrim. I really want clarity on this matter. Will there be a cull of animals in that area? If so, what will be the extent of the cull? I have seen estimates of between 16,000 and 50,000 animals. Could we also have clarity on the level of compensation that will be made available to farmers in the Glens of Antrim? I have seen reports of £80 per ewe and £800 per cow. Are those figures accurate or are they just being put forward by the press without any accuracy? It is important that people understand the level of compensation that will be available.


The Irish Farmers Association heavily criticised the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's slaughter policy. I understand that the Department slaughters on confirmation of the disease. The association was saying that there should be slaughter on suspicion of the disease. Will your policy be changing as a result of that criticism?


Everyone understands the impact that vaccination has on export trade. Are we currently importing meat for human consumption that has been vaccinated in other countries? If so, what would prevent us from exporting vaccinated meat if we decide to vaccinate the Northern Ireland herd?


Ms Rodgers: Thank you for your remarks about the ports. Given the extent of the disease across the water it was essential that our precautions covered the ports. We hope to soon introduce the mechanical sprayers. These can do the work of five or six men, so resources will be freed up. They will be introduced on both sides of the water.


In relation to the cull in the Glens of Antrim, we are currently looking at 5,000 sheep and 1,700 cattle. I know that figures have been bandied about; it is a moving target, and it will depend on what we find, what information we get, and what the serology tests tell us. I cannot be more definite at the moment. However, if it becomes necessary to do further culling then we will have no option but to do it.


On compensation, I too have seen some figures. I was surprised at them, because the level of compensation will remain exactly the same as it has been. The policy in all other cases here, in the rest of the UK and, I understand, in the Republic is that compensation will be at full market value. If a farmer is unhappy with that value he can have recourse to one of three named independent valuers.


I am somewhat surprised at criticism from the Irish Farmers Association, because our policy has been the same from the beginning. When we have a suspect we make a judgement; if we feel it necessary to have tests, it shows that we have concern about the suspect. We have always based what action we take in relation to slaughter on the judgement of the vets as to other considerations or the circumstances on the particular farm. As I understand it, that is precisely what has also happened in the South. The authorities in the South have not always moved in for immediate slaughter when they have had a suspect case. They wait until they get at least a preliminary result.


In the Ardboe case - the one fairly close to the Donnelly farm - we have a suspect with a negative preliminary result. We had intended to move in to slaughter, but we are now holding back. We slaughtered immediately on the Donnelly farm, but, in relation to the neighbouring farms, we are holding back till we get a further result to see if it is still negative. If so, it would be a shame to slaughter. Had we gone ahead and slaughtered a pedigree herd belonging to the Donnelly family, and then had a negative result, I can tell you that the first criticism would have come from the same gentleman. He would say that we had slaughtered a pedigree herd for nothing. It is a difficult judgement to make. I rely on the judgement of the vets.


In relation to vaccination, the current advice is that the immediate slaughter of animals around the outbreak provides the best protection against the spread of the disease. There is a serious downside to the use of vaccination, and it is not my intention, at the moment, to introduce a policy of vaccination in Northern Ireland.


Mr Paisley Jnr: What about the importing of vaccinated meat?


Ms Rodgers: I am not aware of the importing of any vaccinated meat.


Mr Paisley Jnr: We import meat from Argentina. I understand that it has been vaccinated.


Ms Rodgers: As I understand it, vaccination takes place in some regions of Argentina but not in others. I will have to check, but, as far as I know, we do not import from vaccinating regions.


Mr Paisley Jnr: I would appreciate any figures you could get.


Ms Rodgers: I will get back to you on that.


Mr Kane: I too welcome the Minister's statement this morning, the fact that the cull has been taken so far, and the decision to be taken tomorrow to allow slaughter in abattoirs. To follow on from Mr Armstrong's question, can you confirm how many sheep were imported from Longtown mart for slaughter in Northern Ireland in the two weeks prior to the detection of the disease on the mainland?


Ms Rodgers: I want to put something right. I will be making a decision on movement to slaughter and welfare movements tomorrow. In case there is any doubt, I have not made the decision yet or announced it. I will look at the advice available tomorrow. I hope to be able to allow movement, but I cannot say anything on that just yet. In relation to Longtown market, 99 sheep came through Longtown market into Northern Ireland between 7 February and 21 February.


Mr Kane: Minister, I have knowledge that 14,000 sheep were imported from Longtown mart into the Province. All those sheep were scanned and those that were in lamb were taken to the Swatragh and Martinstown marts. Has the individual that carried out the scan on those ewes been investigated?


Ms Rodgers: Many sheep came in in January and were slaughtered, but the 99 that I have mentioned were not.


Mr Kane: Has the Department knowledge of the scanning taking place?


Ms Rodgers: I cannot answer that at present but I will certainly find out for you. I do not know every single detail.


Mr Kane: I will speak to you afterwards, Minister. Thank you.


Ms Rodgers: If you have any information we would be glad to receive it.


Mr Kane: I will supply you with it.


Mr Ford: Thank you, Minister, both for coming here this morning and for the work that you and your officials have been doing over what should have been a holiday time.


The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development web site - although it has caught up a little this morning - is not as informative as either the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food web site or the Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department (SERAD) web site. This is particularly so in relation to the quality of the maps. Will you ask somebody to have a look at that?


I want to follow on from a point that Mr Savage raised about vets. I understand that Mr Donnelly Jnr has worked as a vet in the Antrim area recently. Are your officials doing anything to reassure the farmers with whom he may have been in contact that there is not the possibility of the disease spreading in the Antrim region as a result of his quite legitimate work as a vet prior to the discovery of the disease?


You have re-emphasised fortress farming and the priority of protecting the farm gate. Will you ask the Forest Service to look at the issue of forests that are immediately adjacent to farm land being open and to question whether keeping them open at the moment does not pose a potential threat? I can give you a specific instance in which I have declared an interest.


Ms Rodgers: Thank you, Mr Ford, for your initial remarks. In relation to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development web site, we had a problem over the Easter weekend because the person who normally deals with it was off, and we had a few staffing problems. I will have that looked into. However, I understood yesterday that that was being dealt with. Were you looking at it today or yesterday?


Mr Ford: I was looking at it this morning. It was specifically the issue of the quality of the maps. The 1km and 3km zones do not appear on the Department of Agriculture web site, whereas they do on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and SERAD web sites.


Ms Rodgers: We had some difficulty in the Glens of Antrim because of the nature of the hills there. It will not always be exactly 3km, but I will certainly have that looked into. I will answer your question on forests remaining open, but I will pass the question about the vet in Antrim over to the Chief Veterinary Officer. We had a difficult decision to make at Easter weekend because we had closed some forests, such as Tollymore. We had opened them in what we had thought were changing circumstances. To close them when they were full of caravans would have been very difficult to do. I have not received today's update on where we are on that matter, but it is being reviewed and will be looked at carefully. I take your point, but we had just reopened some of the forest parks. They were full of people and caravans, and to remove those on Easter Saturday or Easter Sunday would have proved to be a difficult, if not impossible, exercise.


Dr McCracken will deal with the question about the vet.


Dr McCracken: You are talking about the son of the farmer who owns the infected premises in Ardboe who is a vet. We have investigated matters and are content that he had no contact with those 22 animals for two months prior to the onset of clinical signs. We are also content that he is not back in practice and will not be until we agree with him that he is in a state to go back. We have that assurance not only from him but from others.


Mr Bradley: Coming from Newry and Mourne, I also welcome you, Minister, and wish to pass on the widespread support in the area for your efforts and those of your team. Your recommendations and requests relate mainly to the farm gate, livestock movement and associated matters. What level of support do you expect from members of the non-farming community who are currently engaged in preparing summertime events? Annual outdoor events, such as sporting fixtures and summer festivals, involve large numbers of people gathering in rural settings or travelling through rural areas to attend them.


Ms Rodgers: I am very grateful to all those people who immediately cancelled events on hearing the bad news. GAA fixtures, the Apprentice Boys' parade, the Republican demonstrations in rural areas, and a cycle race were immediately cancelled without even asking the Department of Agriculture. That is an indication of very strong public support for the farming community. I am very appreciative and grateful for that, as are the farmers.


Guidelines have been published which rescind that part of the Easter weekend guidelines that said pony-trekking and gymkhanas could go ahead. People need to read the new guidelines; they are in all the papers. Effectively, if an event is to be in a rural setting, near farm land, on farm land or involving contact with farm land, it is not a good idea to hold it. On the other hand, events not involving farm animals and which are held in an urban setting present no problem. For example, the guidelines do not warn against an event not involving rural people being held in the middle of Belfast or in a town.


Clearly the cancellation of the North West 200 was a huge sacrifice. However, that particular event involved people going onto farm land, and would have been extremely dangerous as people come from all over Great Britain to enjoy it. The guidelines are very clear: keep away from farm land and farm animals. That is the main message. If people are in doubt they can contact our helpline.


The Chairperson: Minister, you told us that the Executive said that they would stand by you financially. Many people who are not farmers - for example, those in the tourist industry - have suffered grievously through this crisis. Will regard be given to them?


Ms Rodgers: I understand that many people have suffered consequential loss. Indeed, very serious consequential loss will ensue for farmers in addition to the loss of their flocks. This is a very difficult matter. In all of my dealings, whether with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or with the Prime Minister, I want to ensure that we will not be behind on any move towards compensation made at a UK level. Clearly, I am keeping consequential loss to the forefront of my mind. The Executive are also aware of it and have been considering it, but I have to say that the compensation involved here would be infinite and unending and would create huge problems. Compensation on this scale would certainly be impossible for the Northern Ireland block.


Mr Dallat: Communication between the Department and local communities in Ardboe and in the Glens of Antrim has been excellent; I am told that the flow of information is superb. My question follows the Chairperson's theme, but focuses particularly on the north coast and the cancellation of the North West 200.


Is it possible to intensify communication with local councils so that they can map out a tourist trade for the remainder of the season which satisfies your requirements and at the same time allows tourism to continue? It may be feasible to determine a subsistence level which ensures cash flow to the hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, but which - in view of Ardboe - in no way endangers your campaign to eliminate foot-and-mouth disease.


Ms Rodgers: The interdepartmental group will be meeting this afternoon, and I will raise that with them because it is not just a Department of Agriculture and Rural Development matter. As you are aware, we have already discussed whether there could be some relief by way of the rates. That is a Department of Finance and Personnel matter, which is being considered and was discussed by the Executive Committee recently. The best way of dealing with that issue will be to bring it up at the interdepartmental group this afternoon.


Mr Dallat: That would be most welcome because there is a crisis meeting at Coleraine Borough Council tonight, when this subject will be discussed. The knowledge that the matter is being dealt with by the relevant Departments will come as a relief to people who still hope to salvage something for the remainder of the tourist trade season.


Mr Molloy: I welcome your statement, Minister. Everyone supports your efforts and understands the stress incurred.


I want to raise something in relation to the Donnelly farm situation. This is not on the lines of a criticism but is a request for more information. I was present when the all-clear was given. There was a clear relaxation of movement in and out of the area, particularly onto and off the farm. I am not saying that the disease was spread, but I was surprised at how quickly things started to move.


There is confusion for the people in the 1km and 3km zones, and for the people on the periphery of those zones, as to what they can and cannot do. Once the positive result was received indicating an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, the reaction on Friday night was very slow. There was no operation in place around the area except for the actions of the local people themselves. It was several hours before the killing of the stock took place; it was not very speedy. I was there, so I am aware of the actual situation.


I arrived at the Donnelly farm at 7pm on Monday. The disinfection restrictions within 100 yds in and out of the farm had been lifted, and sightseers had gathered to view the fire. There is concern in that area - and I have raised the matter with the Department of Agriculture a number of times - in relation to the disinfection procedures for those going into and out of the area. The Department seems to think that it is not necessary to have the disinfection procedures in place for those entering the area. However, given the character of the rural roads, local farmers are concerned that disinfection measures should be in place, both going into and out of the area. That would send a very clear signal to farmers that they should maintain the restrictions at the farm gate. If farmers see the restrictions being lifted on the road, it sends the signal that the situation is no longer serious, and they feel that the whole area has been written off as an infected zone and there is no point in their continuing to protect their farms.


Ms Rodgers: I will refer first to the 1km and 3km zones. I am somewhat surprised that people still do not know what happens there. Once those zones have been identified there is absolutely no movement of cattle whatsoever in those areas.


You complained that it took several hours to move in to kill the animals. If the animals were killed within several hours I would be inclined to compliment the staff involved as that is quick. The operation cannot be set up within minutes of receiving the news. In my view the cull and the burning was carried out as quickly, effectively and efficiently as possible.


In relation to your comments about the lifting of the disinfection precautions outside the Donnelly farm, these precautions were moved to the periphery of the zone so that it was not just the Donnelly farm that was being protected. The procedures were moved out to the edge of the 3km zone.


I have received questions relating to disinfection procedures and the fact that at the beginning everything going in as well as everything coming out was being disinfected, but that later it was just everything coming out that was being disinfected. It may have been overzealous to disinfect everything that came in and out of an area. However, the real issue was to make sure that everything leaving an area where the disease was present was disinfected.


With regard to sightseers, I really cannot understand why people have to witness those horrible scenes. I have no inclination to do so - I even hate to watch them on the television. I cannot for the life of me understand the voyeuristic people who must go and see for themselves the tragedy that is hitting some of our farming communities. I cannot stop sightseers - there is no law to stop people going to certain places. All we can do is say that visiting those areas is not a good idea and disinfect people as they go into an area.


I would like to reassure farmers. If they think that people should be disinfected going in and out of an area, then we should be disinfecting people going from Lurgan to Portadown, or from Kilrea to Portglenone. We must disinfect vehicles that come out of an area that we know is infected.


Mr Molloy: I do not think that this is a petty issue - I think that it is very important. There was nothing to restrict people from going into the infected area. At 6pm on Monday there were restrictions and then the restrictions were lifted completely. One of your workers in the area raised that issue with me at the time, and when I rang the private office at 7pm that evening no one there could tell me anything. The information line only gave the information from the statements that had been issued. Farmers are raising that as a serious issue. The lifting of the restrictions sends a message to farmers about how they should deal with the situation.


Ms Rodgers: If there are further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland, I will have to depend on people in the community having enough common sense to know that if there is a question mark over any farm then they must stay away from it. We are all in the situation together, and it is not fair to expect the Department to respond within seconds or minutes to every emergency that arises. I hope that people know what the drill is by now. If you think that there is infection, or the possibility of infection in any area, then stay away from it and take all necessary precautions, especially if you are a farmer.


I am not saying that we did everything perfectly and I am not making excuses for that. We were hit with the emergency on the evening of Good Friday. It was the Easter weekend; we thought that we were in a different situation, and most of my staff were away. Most of my senior staff had to rush back from their holidays on Good Friday evening and have been in work on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.


Mr Molloy: There are concerns about the burial of animals, particularly in the Ardboe area, because of the high water tables. Do you know how that will be dealt with?


Ms Rodgers: At the moment we have not buried any animals because of the lough and the water table. I do not know whether what you have said about the water table is accurate, but we will consult the Department of the Environment about that. We have been in a position to render all of the animals that were killed in the precautionary cull. Infected animals have to be burnt in the area. If mass culling becomes necessary, we might not have the capacity to render all of the animals, and we would then have to look into the possibilities of burning and burial. At the moment all of the animals that are being killed in the precautionary culls are being rendered.


The Chairperson: At the start of the BSE crisis, the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland (DANI) compensated meat exporters in Northern Ireland by paying the full market price for their meat and stock. Will that standard apply to foot-and-mouth compensation?


Ms Rodgers: I cannot answer that question now because I am not aware of what happened at the start of the BSE crisis. I will look into that issue.


The Chairperson: We have been asked that question, and I have said that I will try to get the answer.


Ms Rodgers: What exactly were they compensated for?


The Chairperson: They were compensated for what meat they could not get rid of that was in stock.


Ms Rodgers: There would have been a human health risk at that stage in selling the meat. There is no human health risk with foot-and-mouth disease. But I will get you an answer on that.


The Chairperson: Thank you. The other question is to do with my own area; it concerns the transportation of hay and straw from a contaminated area into the Glens of Antrim. Could that be investigated by the Department to see what truth is in it?


Ms Rodgers: We have no evidence that it came in from a contaminated area. It may have come from the South, but we have no evidence at this stage that it came from a contaminated area.


The Chairperson: Will you check that again, please?


Ms Rodgers: Yes, I will certainly check that, but there is no indication or evidence that it came from a contaminated area.


The Chairperson: Minister, thank you very much. I did ring and tell you that I went down to the ports and checked the disinfection procedures there. The ports are very good at the moment, and I am delighted too that these new machines are going to be in operation on the other side of the water so that people boarding the shipping will be already disinfected. That is very good and the people down at the ports work quickly to get the traffic away.


Mr Dallat: Going back to a previous matter, Chairman, I would ask the Minister for her views on vaccination, both in GB and here.


Ms Rodgers: My advice is that immediate slaughter around the outbreak is the best protection to prevent the spread of the disease. There are a lot of serious downsides to the use of vaccination which I am not going to discuss now, but it is not my intention at this point to introduce vaccination in Northern Ireland.


What happens in GB is a matter for the authorities there in light of their own situation. However, vaccination in GB would have serious implications for trade in live animals between GB and Northern Ireland. In particular, farmers who have traditionally sourced quality animals in GB for their genetic potential would no longer have access to that market. Similarly, the closure of that market would have financial implications for the industry in GB. Trade in live animals between Northern Ireland and GB could not resume until all vaccinated animals had been removed from the system and would not happen until EU approval for export to other member states had been granted. For Northern Ireland to maintain its live animal export status with the rest of the European Community, and with the Republic of Ireland especially - which would be important to us - there could be no trade between Northern Ireland and GB if vaccination were to be introduced in GB.


Mr Douglas: Minister, you have a lot of contacts across the water because they are - I should not say it - much further on than we are. Could you or the Chief Veterinary Officer say whether there are any patterns in, or information about, the spread of the disease that the farming community here could be advised of?


Ms Rodgers: Mr Small, the permanent secretary, is attending a ministerial meeting today across the water which I was unable to go to, and he will be having discussions with Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials which will bring him up-to-date on everything.


Mr Douglas: Are there any patterns?


Ms Rodgers: Yes. We are discovering that the virus is moving through the sheep flocks and that happened across the water too. Another point I would make is that the farmers need to be extremely careful that there is no mixing of sheep and cattle, because if the sheep pass it on to the cattle it becomes an even more serious situation.


Mr Savage: Minister, I know that you are going to make a statement tomorrow. One of the last phone calls that I received this morning before I left was about people who have mares at foal which they want to move to the vet to be looked at. Is that movement stopped, or will it be relaxed?


Ms Rodgers: Everything at the moment is stopped - absolutely everything. However, I will be looking at that issue tomorrow morning and will be making an announcement on the advice that I get from my vets. The sooner that we get all the information that we need, the sooner we will be able to move.


The Chairperson: A question was raised before you came here this morning about farmers who might be put out of business by foot-and-mouth disease. What welfare payments can they apply for?


Ms Rodgers: One of the things that we are doing in the interdepartmental group, and at Executive level, is looking at all of the issues which fall within the remit of several different Departments. The Department for Social Development has made a statement to say that it will look at all of the issues on which it can give help to farmers. That assistance could take the form of money - because the farmers will have cash flow problems - or it could be helping farmers to access the benefits that they are entitled to.


Mr Bradley: In the fourth paragraph of your letter last week to the farmers of Newry and Mourne you said,

"However, the restrictions on that area will be lifted from 19 April provided that there are no more outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland in the meantime".


What is the story in the Newry and Mourne area? I know that restrictions apply across the board, but does the Newry and Mourne area now join the rest of Northern Ireland?


Ms Rodgers: Yes. We expect the results from Pirbright today, and I hope that the surveillance zone will be lifted. We had to retain the surveillance zone beyond the normal time because we were waiting for the results from Pirbright of the testing that we had done on the sheep. We are hoping for the final results today, and then the surveillance will be lifted. However, the whole of Northern Ireland will then be restricted in the same way.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much Minister

30 March 2001 / Menu / 27 April 2001