Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for Agriculture
and Rural Development

Friday 11 October 2002


Inquiry into 2001 Outbreak
of Foot-and-Mouth Disease

(Ulster Farmers' Union)



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

Mr J Gilliland ) Ulster Farmers' Union
Mr W Aston )

The Chairperson:
I welcome Mr John Gilliland and Mr Wesley Aston from the Ulster Farmers' Union. Gentlemen, I apologise for the delay in starting the meeting.

Mr Gilliland:
My apologies; we were the guilty parties initially. If the Committee knew where I was, and what shape I was in, yesterday, it would understand why I was slow in getting here today.

The Chairperson:
We are glad to see you.

Mr Gilliland:
Thank you very much for inviting us to give evidence. The Committee should have received a copy of our paper. There are three key sections, corresponding to the periods before, during and after the foot-and-mouth crisis.

We are unable to comment on the contingency plan prior to the foot-and-mouth crisis. We were not aware of any plan. That does not mean that none existed, but we had not been consulted on a plan. In relation to import controls, we have pointed out the need to better investigate the auditing procedure of sheep coming into this country for slaughter, and what happened there.

The ban on animal and animal product imports from Great Britain during the crisis was critical. We did not know at that stage that one load had already got through, but the decision to prevent any subsequent products coming in stopped the situation from getting any worse. That was absolutely pivotal.

While the livestock movement ban was in existence in Northern Ireland, it caused extreme practical difficulties for the farming community. However, we must admit that it was crucial in trying to stop the spread of the disease in Northern Ireland once it was discovered here.

Fortress farming was key in trying to stop the spread of the disease between farms. That was also difficult for the farming community to comply fully with, but most responsible people understood why we needed to do that.

Tracing of livestock imported from Great Britain was particularly difficult bearing in mind the way the disease entered this country and the alleged illegal activity that took place around that. Our organisation cannot support any illegal activity or alleged illegal activity, and that activity caused major problems.

There were no contiguous outbreaks, apart from Ardboe. That proved that the culling procedure worked. If there had not been a misunderstanding about that test around Ardboe, we would probably have stopped that second adjacent outbreak. That shows clearly that the culling policy in Northern Ireland worked. I have heard many people speak about vaccination, but this proved that if you got in quickly and got appropriate animals taken out, it stopped the disease from spreading.

We obtained trade regionalisation eventually, but it was of considerable discomfort to us to see that other European Union states got it much quicker. In considering this area again, we must see how we can work the system; we should not abuse the system, but at least we must try to get it going as quickly as possible. The fact that we obtained trade regionalisation and exporting rights before the rest of Great Britain meant that the financial impact on the industry was not significant, because we were able to benefit from Great Britain's misfortune. That allowed the sheep industry to show a profit at the end of that year.

Communications, on the whole, were not good. I was eventually appointed as liaison officer between the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the industry, which helped. However, if I were going to be critical of the Department, the one area I would be critical of would be communications. It is fine to have an industry meeting once a week, but this outbreak was so fluid and moved so quickly that the key players in the industry needed to be in a position to get information from, and also to, the Department in a far quicker way, and on the ground. For those unfortunate enough to be within the cull zone, communication there could have been much better.

We were aware that there were many economic and social effects on other industries. The key to any outbreak is to try to eradicate it as soon as possible. We were fortunate that regionalisation minimised the economic effect on the farming community. Nevertheless, compensation did not cover anyone who lost their stock for the consequent loss of income in the six months or longer. If you lose your full herd you may be able to restock, but you are a long way from getting an income again. That has never been compensated for, but it is an area that cannot be ignored.

Following the foot-and-mouth crisis, I still have no confidence in the ability of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to prevent exotic diseases from coming into Great Britain. It has been well over 18 months since the outbreak began, and it is a disgrace that no significant changes have been made to import regulations on the ground. That concerns me, because if we cannot protect ourselves on this island, there is nothing to stop any future exotic disease in Great Britain from moving straight over here.

On that basis, we are prepared to examine the issue of all-island animal health status. If Great Britain will not protect itself, we are going to try to protect ourselves. That is especially important since our economy is based on livestock production. We must ensure that exotic diseases do not reach our shores.

Contingency planning is vital. We have not been asked for our input on that. If we are serious about contingency planning, I would like to think that we would have an input.

On the question of livestock movement controls, it is important to know where animals are moving to in order to stop the spread of disease and follow the traces of disease spread. The difficulty in the sheep industry is one of individual sheep identification. We must find a foolproof electronic system. The Republic of Ireland has gone down the road of individual sheep identification with a paper trail, and it is a nightmare. It is not working, and the producers have walked away from it. If we are to go down that road, we must find something that is not onerous, but still achieves the end result. However, it must be foolproof, and the system in the Republic of Ireland is very onerous.

The Chairperson:
You make it clear that as far as the outbreak was concerned, there may have been a contingency plan, but the Ulster Farmers' Union knew nothing about it.

Mr Gilliland:
That is correct.

The Chairperson:
Do you know anything about a contingency plan now?

Mr Gilliland:
I have heard that they have a contingency plan. I have not seen it, nor have I been asked to have an input into it.

The Chairperson:
So the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has not approached the Ulster Farmers' Union to talk about what would happen if there were another outbreak?

Mr Gilliland:
I am not aware of that.

The Chairperson:
Are you aware of any information or intelligence from across the Province of a contingency plan?

Mr Gilliland:
I have heard about it in conversations, but I have not learned of it in writing, nor have I seen any detail of it. I would be keen to see it; I cannot over-emphasise the issue of communication. From day one of the outbreak in Scotland, the president of the National Farmers' Union in Scotland had an integral role in the whole strategy.

I eventually became integral in the strategy here, but it was some time after the start of the outbreak. In an exotic disease outbreak, it is vital for the industry to understand what is going on, as that helps in the communication strategy. During the outbreak, the Ulster Farmers' Union played a major role in communicating with the public, and that was a good exercise. The Ulster Farmers' Union felt that the battle with foot-and-mouth was the virus, but the war on foot-and-mouth was how our industry was going to be perceived after the crisis. I would like to think that the Northern Ireland public respects that the industry did everything in its power to put its house in order and acted maturely and responsibly to try to sort out the situation, but that was not the case in GB.

The Chairperson:
How do you think the contingency plan should be drawn up? Who should the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development consult in the preparation of the plan?

Mr Gilliland:
As it is an exotic disease, vets must play the leading role in how the plan is put together.

The Chairperson:
The vets know nothing about any contingency plan.

Mr Gilliland:
That alarms me. During the consultation process, PricewaterhouseCoopers brought in two leading Danish vets. They said that it was paramount that vets have a say in what is going on, especially with diseases that are as infectious as foot-and-mouth. As industry leaders, the Ulster Farmers' Union should be very much to the fore, but the people who were destocked in the three cull zones should be listened to, and lessons should be learned. During the outbreak, the Ulster Farmers' Union received many telephone calls from people asking if they were in a cull area and how and when animals would be culled.

It has been three generations since the last outbreak, so no one had any historic information about what was going to happen. We need to take notice of those questions so that, if there is another outbreak, the Ulster Farmers' Union can provide information on the cull area and the timetable for culling. It can also set up a mobile unit in the cull area to try to alleviate people's anguish.

The Chairperson:
There was good communication between vets and farmers, but there was poor communication between vets and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. I am sure that there was good communication between the Ulster Farmers' Union and its members, but did the union have good communication with the Department?

Mr Gilliland:
Initially, communication was difficult. Communication was good early in the morning and late in the evening, but when the emergency think tank was in session during the day, it was difficult to get messages in and out. After Good Friday and Easter Saturday, the Minister and I had a long conversation about it, and she agreed to resolve the problem by appointing me and Nigel McLaughlin as liaison officers between the industry and the Department. That helped matters, but they could probably have been improved on.

People in emergency think tanks were deeply involved in what they were trying to do, so it was easy to see why we were left out in the cold. However, the Ulster Farmers' Union played a major role in communicating, as our members were calling the union as well as the Department's helplines. At times, the only means of communication with my office were through mobile phones. The six lines into our office were all jammed. If I needed to speak to my staff, I could do so only by calling their mobile phones. Our switchboards were jammed with callers ringing to ask questions. I cannot overemphasise the fact that communication is essential, especially for people living around the cull areas.

Mr Savage:
Commissioner Byrne said that the European Commission believes that, in the event of future outbreaks, emergency vaccinations should be our foremost response. What are your views?

Mr Gilliland:
I have two clear views on vaccination. First, I want to be fully satisfied that consumers are on board and that they have no doubts. Secondly, I would like to be shown that vaccination technology has moved on, because during the outbreak vets found it difficult to distinguish between vaccinated animals and infected animals. Vets said that when they tested animals for antibodies, using the technology available then, they could not accurately tell whether the antibodies had been created because the animals had been vaccinated or because they had been infected.

I know that those in the veterinary medicine field are working on designing a vaccination with a marker gene that would allow vets to determine why the antibody is present. Until that technology is foolproof, I urge caution. A vaccination policy should ensure that animals are kept alive, rather than slaughtered at a later stage. That can be achieved only if vets can distinguish between vaccinated animals and infected animals.

Mr Savage:
Should the identification system for sheep be the same as the one for cattle, whereby the farmer must have a herd book?

Mr Gilliland:
Sheep producers face considerable practical difficulties. We must bear in mind that there are three times more sheep than cattle in Northern Ireland and that many sheep are slaughtered between the ages of six and 12 months. Somewhere along the line the cost benefit must be weighed up. For example, it might cost £5 to put a tag on a lamb that is due to be slaughtered in six months - at the moment, the industry does not have that kind of money. A practical solution is needed.

Last week, I spoke to Michael Scannell, a member of EU Commissioner David Byrne's cabinet, about sheep identification. I wanted to know where the Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection (DG SANCO) stood on the issue. It wants individual sheep identification. In theory, I can see why it would want that, but how would that work in practice? Sheep have soft ears. It is difficult enough to keep tags in a cow's ears, but it is a nightmare to keep them in sheep's ears. Sheep have a habit of sticking their heads where they should not, and thus the tags come off.

We must work out the logistics and how this will work in practice. When we met the Irish Farmers' Association in Dublin, one of the issues raised was individual sheep identification. It is not working for farmers there. They are losing tags all over the place. Worse still, they have put a paper trail of a chase over it as well. I have been to the offices of livestock marts in County Donegal - you would fall over the piles and piles of paper. Ultimately, everyone here wants to reduce the bureaucracy and the onus on farmers. EU Commissioner Franz Fischler said to me recently, "I do not want you to farm paper, I want you to farm the land and the animals on the land."

We need a practical solution. I recognise that when an infectious disease breaks out and animals are moving around, a foolproof traceable system helps get rid of the disease. I have no doubt about that. However, I do not know how it can work in practice. Given the despair that the farming industry is experiencing at the moment and the cost involved, I do not believe that this is the right time to introduce such a measure.

Mr Aston:
There is no point in having a paper trail just for the sake of having it - it must be there for a reason. Traceability is that reason, and a paper chase does not lend itself to that.

Mr Savage:
There must be some means of identification somewhere along the line; however, the issue is finding one that is feasible.

Mr Gilliland:
I was led to believe that the Commission is torn on that. DG SANCO and the Agriculture Directorate-General want it, but they want two different systems. They were to bring proposals forward; those have not been submitted, and they will probably be some time. I do not walk away from this; I understand the need for individual identification for disease eradication. Clearly, however, it is necessary to have a system that works.

Moreover, I do not want us to go forward first. We do not want to overburden our industry and increase its costs ahead of any of our competitors. When our lambs go to France we get no preferential treatment, no extra margin for our sheep because we have full traceability.

The Chairperson:
The vets, who were here before you, said the same thing; that the south of Ireland has concluded that it is in a terrible predicament with paper-chasing.

Mr Armstrong:
Where do you think a laboratory is necessary?

Mr Gilliland:
I was pleasantly surprised. We are aware of the O'Hare report. In our response to that we emphasised that, whatever the restructuring of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, we must keep the capability for an emergency response. We were able, before anywhere in GB, to carry out serology testing in sheep. With three days' notice we were taking up to 10,000 samples a day. I must congratulate the science service on its response, which was such that at the end of the outbreak Northern Ireland was able to help Scotland. It is good that we can respond in that way. Whatever happens with regard to O'Hare and the modernisation of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, it is imperative that Northern Ireland keep an emergency response. I do not know where that should be.

Mr Armstrong:
How do you think the valuation, slaughter and de-stocking went?

Mr Gilliland:
Valuation will always be an emotive issue. There are two issues. As a farmer and a farmers' representative, I want to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their animals. Likewise, in the case of foot-and-mouth disease I want those animals dead. I am not being callous: the key to stopping the spread of foot-and-mouth disease is speed to slaughter. That is primary. We must have a system into which farmers can buy with the speed to cull quickly, at the same time as getting a fair price. We have not been inundated with people who said that they had been hard done by.

Mr Armstrong:
What about farmers with cattle aged over 30 months?

Mr Gilliland:
That is a valid issue, and there were many complaints about farmers who had cattle of over 30 months which were in the restriction zone, but not in the cull zone. There is no compensation for loss of income. Those farmers got no consequential damage, because their animals were in a restriction zone, but were not culled. The animals exceeded 30 months and there was a considerable discount. It would have been better had those animals been culled. I know a few individuals who lost money in that situation.

Mr Douglas:
I am not putting a question, because I agree with most of what has been said. You say that the Department and farmers have a responsibility to protect our interests in the future. The idea of more paper and more tags causes me a lot of concern. I never forgot the comment made at Loughry College in relation to the vision group: someone said that the issue of traceability only relates to tags and not to stock, and that is the difficulty.

I know of farmers who are adding an old steel tag to their animals' ears because they have lost so many tags. Even pedigree breeders cannot keep track of their animals, as they have lost two tags. I have deep concerns, and that issue must be kept in mind as we move forward. If we cannot keep tags on cows and heifers, how are we to keep them on sheep? I agree with you and hope that we can come to some agreement.

Earlier, the North of Ireland Veterinary Association told us that a few years ago it discussed contingency plans for the future with the Ulster Farmers' Union. If we want to protect our industry, those plans should be carried on.

Mr Gilliland:
I concur.

Mr Dallat:
It has been said that it is important to take into account the views of those whose areas were affected by the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. What is your view on the PricewaterhouseCoopers review, given that only one person turned up at Ardboe? Can anything be learned from that? The evidence collected will not be great, as people did not attend because they were not given due notice or for other reasons.

Mr Gilliland:
I am disappointed, as I did not realise that there had been such a low turnout. Valid grievances must be heard. The three outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease were in areas that were not the strongest Ulster Farmers' Union areas, and I cannot give you much more detail. However, there were genuine grievances that had to be heard.

Mr Aston and I were involved in the outbreak in south Armagh at the start, and part of our job was to improve communication and overcome those genuine concerns. We like to think that we went a considerable way towards doing that.

Mr Dallat:
How critical was your liaison appointment? Your modesty would probably prevent you from saying so, but am I to understand that the appointment was essential?

Mr Gilliland:
Putting personalities aside, it was essential to have such an appointee, but for whoever took the job, it was a poisoned chalice. The procedure was that I would attend a staff meeting in the morning, then go to the Department armed with requests that covered two sides of an A4 sheet, say all that was necessary and come back four hours later with half a page of answers. I would then be asked if that was all I had got. It was a bit like being torn apart, but it was a very valid issue.

The key role I played was to free up licences to move animals. If you remember, one of the difficulties of the timing of this crisis was the turn-out of stock from sheds to grass. There were many empty silage pits, but there were no licences to move animals. Movement of stock across the road was not permitted. Factors like that should be written down in a contingency plan, and we should learn from the experience.

It was unfortunate that the outbreak happened at turn-out time. No one was ever able to tell us whether it was better for a tractor and trailer to go between farms to pick up spare silage to bring back to animals in a shed, or for those animals to be put out to grass. I was never given a risk analysis for veterinary purposes as to which option had the lesser risk of spreading disease.

Mr Armstrong:
Mr Dallat mentioned the Ardboe meeting. I was never alerted about that. I think that -

The Chairperson:
You have made that point, and now I must get on with the discussion.

Mr Bradley:
Mr Gilliland, you are very modest. I come from the Newry area and know the role you played; it was greatly appreciated.

I share your lack of confidence regarding the attitude of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs towards exotic diseases and towards farming, but I hope that the scenario my question relates to never materialises. In the even of another outbreak, or even a scare, in Northern Ireland, what confidence would you have in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to manage the situation here? Does it have a new contingency plan, other than that that was in place prior to the outbreak?

Mr Gilliland:
To put it shortly, I have no confidence in that Department. I go back and forth to England every week. When I arrive in Heathrow, I see no measures. To great applause, the Department announced the deployment of two sniffer dogs. If you were to go to the United States of America, New Zealand or Australia, you would see that they have so many ways of preventing the disease being carried by personal imports - we do not know, but there is a fair chance that the disease came into this country via a personal import.

Through our Brussels office, we have put a great deal of pressure on the European Commission to speed up the process with regard to personal imports, which it has now done. However, that needs to be policed, and sniffer dogs are absolutely key for checking personal imports at airports. To have two sniffer dogs for the whole of GB is pathetic. I have no confidence in the measures whatsoever. The one thing that the industry cannot afford is another exotic disease on this island.

Mr P Doherty:
I want to take you back to your concern about trade regionalisation. When the outbreak occurred, there were massive operations at all the border crossings between the North and the South. There were mats, and vehicles going into the South were sprayed. I live in Donegal, so I came back and forth across the border every day. There were no measures for vehicles coming into the North. There was an outbreak in County Louth, and there were scares in County Donegal, County Tipperary and other places in the South. Did that lack of control at the border crossings lead to the South gaining regional status very quickly, while the North did not achieve that status?

Mr Gilliland:
No. I will be honest and say that a great deal of what happened immediately south of the border was window dressing. It did not stop the disease moving south - we still do not know how that happened. The Republic of Ireland achieved regional status because it is probably the world's best at networking. If you go to Brussels, you find Irish people coming out of the woodwork, and they are extremely good at networking. They have a direct voice in Brussels, which we do not.

I have no doubt - although I have no evidence - that the delay in our achieving regional status was due to the fact that we had to go through Whitehall. That is a statement of fact. Northern Ireland does not have a direct voice in Brussels. In such cases, it is important that people understand that we are different from Great Britain as regards agriculture. That must be recognised.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for coming.

Mr Gilliland:
I am aware that the Committee will not meet in this format for some time, so I wish to thank all the members of the Committee for their interest in the agriculture sector. We appreciate very much the help that you have given the industry. It is sad that you are leaving us during the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy, when, I must say, we need your support. Thank you all for your endeavours on behalf of our industry.

The Chairperson:
Let us hope that the situation will not last forever. Thank you very much.

Mr Armstrong:
Do you agree that the Department of Agriculture makes many decisions off the cuff, and then announces them in press statements?

The Chairperson:
Please do not open another debate.

11 October 2002 (part iv) / Menu