Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Friday 4 May 2001


Update on Foot-and-Mouth
Disease Outbreak

Members present:

Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Douglas
Mr Dallat
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr McHugh
Mr Paisley Jnr


Ms B Rodgers)Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Dr B McCracken)Department of Agriculture
Mr P Toal)and Rural Development

1.The Deputy Chairperson: I welcome the Minister and her officials to this weekly meeting of the Agriculture Committee.

2. Ms Rodgers: I would like to give the Committee a brief update on the current state of foot-and-mouth disease, before turning to the wider situation.

3. I am happy to report that the foot-and-mouth disease situation in Northern Ireland remains basically unchanged since my last appearance before the Committee. There are no worrying fresh suspects and there is no material at Pirbright for testing. Clean-up work continues around the sites of the outbreaks in Tyrone and Antrim and is going according to plan. All relevant animals have now been culled.

4. There was some rather alarmist coverage in the media last night of a preliminary positive result from serology tests on animals at Cushendun. The true situation is that these tests, carried out on livestock within 1 kilometre of the existing confirmed outbreak, appeared positive on the first pass. However, further checking revealed that virtually all the samples were negative. Further tests will be carried out at Pirbright, but I expect the results to be confirmed as negative. In any case, all the animals concerned have been slaughtered as a precaution. I stress that this is certainly not Northern Ireland's fifth outbreak, as some sections of the media reported last night.

5. Over the past week or so the focus of my efforts has shifted. I have been trying to balance the farming community's need to move livestock with the need to prevent further spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland. That is not an easy balance to strike, but since I last appeared before the Committee I have approved measures to allow the limited movement of livestock, other than sheep, on welfare grounds. I have also agreed that the costs of the necessary veterinary certification will be met from public funds in order to put Northern Irish farmers on the same footing as those in GB.

6. Understandably, that concession has led to redoubled pressure from other sectors of the industry, notably sheep farmers, who also want to be able to move their stock on welfare grounds. Allowing an early return to the more or less free movement of sheep within Northern Ireland is a certain recipe for foot- and-mouth disease cases here. My chief veterinary officer's clear advice is that the virus is almost certainly present, unnoticed, in the sheep flock.

7. Nevertheless, on the advice of my chief veterinary officer, I believe that it is possible to relax the movement controls in a way that allows farmers to deal safely with their most urgent welfare problems and, the underlying disease situation permitting, to plan slightly further ahead.

8. From Wednesday 9 May I intend to permit the movement of sheep for welfare or husbandry reasons within holdings and to allow further easement of the controls on cattle, pigs and horses. I hope that further relaxation will be possible with effect from 23 May, and that should go a significant way towards normalisation for much of the industry. However, I cannot foresee any relaxation in relation to movement to marts or common grazing for some time. The reason for that should be obvious to everyone.

9. I will keep both these categories under review and will act when I can. I realise that a welfare problem has built up among culled sows and that there have been calls for a welfare slaughter scheme. I hope to make an announcement on that next week.

10. I am trying to balance the needs of the farmer and the animals with the need to ensure that the disease does not spread. On the basis that we do not have any other further outbreaks, I am trying to give farmers some way in which they can plan and are not left wondering whether the situation will continue for months. That is dependent on us not having another outbreak and on us working together to ensure that we do everything by the book.

11. On Tuesday 1 May, in the course of the Assembly debate on the Chairman's no day named motion, I announced a package of controls and deterrents aimed at preventing, as far as possible, the importation and spread of diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. I will be banning the feeding of pigswill to animals and imposing movement standstills to prevent the excessive trading of livestock. Sheep and pigs will be individually identified to allow the recording of their movements, and I will review the penalties in our animal disease control legislation. I have also asked a subcommittee of the vision group to examine this area in the light of our experiences and urgently make recommendations. The subcommittee is examining a wide range of other measures and I look forward to seeing its report in due course.

12. Finally, in recent days there has been some controversy about a possible site for the mass burial of animal carcasses. I would like to clarify the issue for the Committee. While we were able to cope satisfactorily with the four foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks that we have had, we are not out of the woods yet. There is always the possibility of further outbreaks, something we discovered when the Ardboe outbreak emerged so long after Meigh. The movement control relaxations that I have announced inevitably carry a degree of risk.

13. I have to plan for further outbreaks and for a worst-case scenario such as Cumbria. If we were to find ourselves with a large number of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks among, for example, sheep in the Glens of Antrim or in the Sperrins, the approach we have so far adopted, of using 3-kilometre and 10-kilometre zones, targeted slaughter would not be viable. It is conceivable that we would have to slaughter and dispose of large numbers of livestock in a short space of time. It would be irresponsible of us not to plan for that doomsday situation, and it was for that reason that the Executive endorsed a contingency plan to allow us to cope with that scenario should it ever arise.

14. Inevitably, the question of what to do with the carcasses of large numbers of slaughtered animals has to be addressed. Funeral pyres of the scale required would not be publicly acceptable and the necessary rendering capacity is not available. Therefore, the question of a large-scale burial site must be addressed. As I have told the Committee and the Assembly, the Executive Committee has agreed to commission work to identify any, or all, suitable sites for burial on that scale. I am told that the necessary work is currently under way. I fully understand people's concerns about having a burial site in their back yard, but I must emphasise that it will only be needed in an extreme situation, which I hope will never arise. Even if it does arise, I will examine all possible disposal routes -burning, rendering and burial - and the likelihood is that we would use all those routes.

15. In the final analysis, the possibility that carcasses may need to be buried on a large scale at one or more sites in Northern Ireland cannot be ruled out. No decisions have yet been taken on where such a site, or sites, might be located and, indeed, no such decision may ever be necessary. That is all I wish to say at this stage.

16. The Deputy Chairperson: I am sure that every member of the Committee hopes that a burial site is not required. We must plan ahead and I welcome the news about veterinary certificates. There is much concern Province-wide about culled sows and boars. I hope the time schedule is up to date.

17. Mr Ford: First, can the Minister confirm that the speculation about Nutt's Corner being used for a burial site has no substance, as was confirmed at the Environment Committee by representatives of the Environment and Heritage Service yesterday?

18. Secondly, what progress has been made on the sheep testing you referred to last week? How many sheep have been tested and what is the likely timetable?

19. Ms Rodgers: Talk about a burial site at Nutt's Corner is pure speculation. The consultant's report has not yet been received. There has been no decision about sites. To date, serology tests have been carried out on 477 flocks, and 469 flocks have tested totally negative. The samples which are not totally negative have been sent to Pirbright, and we fully expect those results to come back negative. Only one or two in each flock are not totally negative and we are not concerned about it.

20. With regard to the positive case which was referred to yesterday, 13 out of 60 sheep tested positive on first screening, but on the second run, the result of which we received yesterday evening, only one out of those 13 showed positive. The samples have gone to Pirbright, as they routinely would, and we fully expect a negative result.

21. It is difficult to be exact about the timescale, but I hope that the two main high-risk areas, the Glens and the Sperrins, will be finished by early June, at which time we will be able to say more about the state of the sheep flock.

22. Mr Dallat: As we start to pick up the pieces after foot-and-mouth disease, there is an especial concern for the plight of small farmers. The Minister may be aware that two groups presently attend Agriculture Committee meetings, both representing the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association (NIAPA). Are you concerned about that? I know that you have particular concerns for small farmers and theirs is a strong representative voice feeding into the Department. Have you given any thought to this situation? I am not a part of the situation, nor do I desire to be any part of it, but it is relevant given that small farmers need a strong representation.

23. The Deputy Chairperson: A group of people will be making representations during our deliberations on the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC). There is a dispute within NIAPA, but that dispute stays outside the Committee door. I will not allow it in here and I hope that everyone bears with me.

24. Ms Rodgers: I take the point that all farmers need to be represented, particularly given the situation that they have been in for the past number of years. Small farmers also need to be represented. Due to the unresolved dispute about who is the legitimate leader of NIAPA, I have taken a decision, which I put in the public domain, that I will not receive any delegations from NIAPA until the matter is resolved, for the simple reason that it is not for me to make decisions. I hope that they sort themselves out as soon as possible, and I will then be in a position to receive normal delegations. In the meantime, due to the seriousness of foot-and- mouth disease, I have stated that I will continue to invite both factions. I will make no judgement on them to industry meetings because farmers must be kept informed. I have no desire to become involved in an internal union dispute.

25. Mr Dallat: My query was put in the interests of small farmers. Like you, Minister, I have no interest in becoming involved.

26. Mr McHugh: As a Committee, we are trying to represent everyone's interests. Farmers consider the restrictions very severe and would like them eased. Given that there might be livestock movement, a doomsday scenario is a possibility that we want to avoid.

27. Considering the range of risk, and the fact that you have had to place such severe restrictions on animal movement, is that likely to be a possibility? We could reach bursting point if restrictions are not adhered to. It is difficult for farmers to do that and to continue practical farming.

28. I have two questions on technical matters. First, regarding IACS (Integrated Administration and Control Systems), can farmers add on land after 15 May? How much land can they put on forms?

29. Secondly, if sheep cannot be moved from a given field within 14 days, how do farmers move their beef livestock - suckler cows, for example - on the same farm if only limited land is available to them?

30. Ms Rodgers: In relation to the movement I have announced today, I must carefully balance the risk of spreading the disease with the need to meet the farmers' genuine problems.

31. This is a contract between the Department, the farmers and the community. Everyone is suffering, and I have a choice. I can decide to move all animals and take a complete risk. Alternatively, movement can come about in a controlled and gradual manner as the situation improves.

32. Today's announcement allows the movement of bulls between holdings, but not the movement of cattle. I am allowing cattle to OTMS (over-30-months scheme) slaughter. Sheep can be moved within holdings for welfare reasons. That will meet Mr McHugh's point about moving sheep to allow 14 days for cattle to be brought out. That is being allowed from Wednesday 9 May.

33. Sheep will also be able to move within holdings for husbandry reasons. Cattle movements within holdings for husbandry have just been announced today, and also horse importation from the Republic of Ireland and other member states. Those are the further relaxations that I have been able to announce today.

34. IACS guidelines will appear in tomorrow's farming papers. The force majeure position has been put to the European Commission. I would be surprised if the Commission did not accept the force majeure scenario.

35. Mr Douglas: Every day that passes without a new outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is good news. I hope that the blood sampling continues to be negative.

36. The draconian measures that are in place encourage the illegal movement of animals, and they also encourage the loss of animal traceability that I have highlighted in the Assembly. I welcome any movement of animals, particularly the movement of sheep in farm complexes. That restriction is a serious difficulty for some large sheep farmers. I know of one man who has up to 1,000 sheep and who brought them to the area around his house to be lambed. If he cannot move them again, welfare will be affected. Perhaps you could consider individual flocks?

37. Ms Rodgers: Are you talking about moving animals in the farm area?

38. Mr Douglas: Yes, but unfortunately the farmer I mentioned has rented out the land.

39. Ms Rodgers: That particular case could be dealt with under today's relaxation. However, that relaxation does not apply to common grazing or to another farm.

40. Mr Douglas: Restrictions have already been difficult for some farmers, and are becoming even more difficult because those farmers would like to move their animals to grass shortly. I congratulate the Department - and you, Minister - for the way in which the crisis has been dealt with, despite the draconian measures. We have to accept that all such measures are necessary.

41. Mr Paisley Jnr: I thank the Minster for her statement and I appreciate her bringing us up to date with developments.

42. Yesterday the Prime Minister made an upbeat statement about getting on top of the foot-and-mouth crisis, and farmers in the Republic of Ireland indicated this morning that they would like an easement of the restrictions that they face. Thank God that our cases in Northern Ireland have been limited. Are you confident that we are now on top of this disease in Northern Ireland? If so, what steps will you take to ease restrictions in the medium term?

43. I am sure that you are aware of the comments made by Tom Cromie of the Future Genetics Animal Welfare Breeding Company who wrote to you last month. He believed that Government strategy in Northern Ireland - not necessarily Department of Agriculture and Rural Development strategy - in dealing with the foot-and-mouth outbreak had been "amateurish". He said that there had been a lack of central strategy, unsuitable disinfectant methods were being used, there was a delay in implementing an informed purchasing programme for disinfecting methods, and there was no clear line of authority in dealing with disinfecting methods. Can you tell us if the Government intends to put a long-term contingency plan in place? Will that plan mean that each year the threat of foot-and-mouth will be challenged and blocked as a result of a proper strategically driven anti-foot-and-mouth campaign?

44. Ms Rodgers: I am reluctant to say that we are on top of things. We will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that we do get on top of things. Remember, the second outbreak in Ardboe came 41 days after the outbreak in Meigh.

45. Mr Paisley Jnr will find that my statement covers the easing of restrictions in the medium term. An immediate relaxation will begin on Wednesday 9 May, with a further relaxation on 23 May. I have not yet dealt with the difficult area of animal movement to common grazing or indeed the re-opening of the marts or the areas of highest possible risk.

46. In relation to Mr Cromie's letter, which I replied to very recently, can I say that hindsight is a wonderful thing. However, I am satisfied that from the start everything we have done in Northern Ireland has been effective and has helped us contain the disease and prevent further outbreaks. Vets from the European Commission have been here this week to look at what we are doing. They have been impressed and have asked us to attend a workshop in Europe to explain our methods.

47. Our measures have concentrated on the farm gate, which is where we saw the greatest risk. Our resources are not infinite, but I am happy that we have used them effectively. We are human and I am sure we have made the odd mistake, but on the whole our approach has been effective.

48. A subcommittee of the vision group is looking at the lessons to be learned from this crisis and I await their recommendations on long-term planning. In the Assembly I announced that I will take measures to deal with illegal trading, illegal movement of sheep and the banning of pigswill.

49. Mr Armstrong: Thank you, Minister, for your openness and frankness. I agree that we cannot let our guard down. I am concerned about the 10-kilometre area, which covers a good part of my own constituency, and many farmers need to have stock moved. Will some of the relaxations be permitted within the 10-kilometre zone?

50. Ms Rodgers: Regrettably, relaxations within a surveillance zone are not possible because the rules laid down by Europe are very strict. We cannot move animals out of a surveillance zone. There can be some movement within the zone but not out of the zone.

51. Mr Armstrong: Many lambs in that zone need to be weaned off their ewes and when the farmers try to do that they will fail and the lambs will go straight to slaughter. About 6,000 sows and a number of culled pigs and sows go to market from that area. Would that pose a problem? Would farm-to-farm sales be possible within that zone?

52. Ms Rodgers: Culled sows from within the surveillance zone can go for immediate slaughter because there is a slaughter facility in the Ardboe area. In relation to the other issues you raised, the simple answer to that is that animals cannot be moved out of the surveillance zone. The same situation applied in Meigh.

53. Mr Armstrong: I do not think sows were culled.

54. Ms Rodgers: That is a commercial decision. I will look at welfare problems very shortly but I will not give any commitments.

55. Mr Armstrong: What is the situation for a farmer within the surveillance zone who has a parcel of land just outside the zone?

56. Ms Rodgers: That is an unfortunate situation for the farmer, but the surveillance zone is closed off.

57. Mr Kane: Minister, I too welcome your positive response this morning and I know that farmers will also welcome it. Have you considered the practical implications of the 30-day holding period? This permanent restriction could have a devastating effect on cattle prices at auction marts. What is your reaction to claims by farmers that the restriction is a response to pressure by the meat plants rather than an attempt to reduce the risk of spreading foot-and-mouth disease?

58. Ms Rodgers: The reason for introducing the 30-day holding period is now very obvious to everyone; it was the movement of animals within days which left us in this very difficult situation. It was a European Commission decision. Mr Kane will be aware that similar restrictions have already been introduced in the South of Ireland and in GB, where there is a 21-day holding period.

59. We will consult on this issue, but it is necessary to regulate the movement of animals. Once the new protocol and regulations are in place, and once people are aware of them, they can plan accordingly.

60. Mr Kane: At present, can a farmer move a bull from another holding onto his farm? If he brings in an animal, is he banned from moving livestock off his own farm?

61. Ms Rodgers: Yes, that is the case.

62. Mr Kane: That is rough.

63. Ms Rodgers: Sometimes I am asked why we did not do enough in advance to prevent the foot-and-mouth outbreak. However, when I announce that I am going to do something to prevent it happening in the future, I am told that the measures I introduce are too tough. I understand your reaction, Mr Kane, but you have to strike a balance between the two evils.

64. The Deputy Chairperson: We are all in a difficult situation. However, I hope that the best advice has been taken on behalf of the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland. Minister, you said that there will be movement of horses. Will horses in the South be allowed back into Northern Ireland?

65. Ms Rodgers: Yes. Your client will be happy.

66. The Deputy Chairperson: Will this be possible from today?

67. Ms Rodgers: All these movements will be allowed from Wednesday 9 May. Mr Chairman, during the week in the Assembly you asked for a timetable. I hope that you are now happy that I have made at least some effort to meet your request.

68. Mr Bradley: I thank the Minister and the Department for the response to last week's debate on veterinary licences; that brought a great deal of relief. Just last night I had a phone call from a farmer who was still concerned because he did not know that the Department is now covering those costs.

69. Ms Rodgers: It seems that good news travels more slowly than bad news.

70. Mr Bradley: I am sorry that I missed most of today's discussion on the 30-day holding period. Minister, I have written to you about this matter because I have some minor concerns. Some farms depend on respectable dealers to stock up their herds for them. I do not know of any female farmers who attend marts; they have always depended on an honourable dealer to carry out that business on their behalf. There is a danger that unscrupulous dealers might become linked with respectable dealers. Farmers in my own area depend on a local dealer to put in good stock; they trust him. I appreciate the position you are in, Minister, but could the issue be reviewed before the final draft is delivered?

71. Ms Rodgers: I accept Mr Bradley's point. The restriction period comes from a European Commission directive, and the details will have to be worked out in consultation with the stakeholders and all those involved.

72. The Deputy Chairperson: The Committee has decided that it would like you to give us a weekly update, if that is possible.

73. Ms Rodgers: Every week?

74. The Deputy Chairperson: For next week, at least.

75. Ms Rodgers: I will try to do that. Everyone will be extremely busy and my ability to give you updates will depend largely on the situation. Perhaps I could report to the Assembly and the Committee on alternate weeks?

27 April 2001 / Menu / 4 May 2001 (part ii)