A farmer who has had his entire flock of 14,000 free-range hens culled due to Avian flu has called on the Government to provide more protection for free-range egg producers.
Mickey McKenna, along with his brother Tom, son Conor and wife Pauline, was running what he describes as "a state-of-the-art system" in Drumlish in north Monaghan, having converted from beef four years ago.
"I took early retirement from the health service to go farming full time," said Mr McKenna, who had worked as a nurse manager for psychiatric services in Cavan and Monaghan.
"I had always done a bit of beef farming on the side, but I always had an interest in hens and wanted to go into them -they are a very enjoyable animal to work with.
"Until recently, everything was going well. We have modern facilities in place to meet the requirements of the birds. We're audited by Bord Bia, as well as Freedom Foods, who both visit the site once a year.
"Producing eggs was considered a low-risk business, even with the hens outside. Our only threat was a fox or a buzzard, which might take a few hens every year but wouldn't do much damage."
While some of the McKennas' poultry farmer neighbours saw their flocks test positive for Avian flu, initially Mickey was hopeful his flock would escape. But it wasn't long before he noticed a drop in the quality of the eggs and an overall change in egg-laying pattern, which are some of the key indicators of the disease.
"The initial signs were poor-quality, small white eggs. My hens were in perfect health. I was aware of the signs but thought we might have escaped," Mr McKenna said.
"However, after consultation with the vet, it was deemed my flock was a possible candidate for the flu and I was locked down by the Department.
"The hens had to be culled, which was very traumatic and a sad day for me, my brother and the whole family. I'm at a complete loss at the minute. It's created a complete vacuum in my life."
The hens were 31 weeks of age but only start laying at 24 weeks so they had only been producing eggs for a few weeks before they were culled.
"It was very sad to see a young flock who received the highest standard of health care, nutrition etc, just be culled instantly," Mr McKenna said.
As Avian flu is not a notifiable disease, there is no financial compensation for culling the flock and there is no insurance.
"From a financial point of view, I'm very scared to go back into the business," Mr McKenna said. "I'm afraid to re-order hens, which is very costly at over €64,000 per flock.
"And I'm still paying considerable costs, such as a meal for this flock of birds which no longer exist and I have borrowings of €460,000 for the sheds which also have to be met.
"I also have to pay the full costs for the culling and the disposal of the birds, as well as the storage of the manure which has to be kept for several months in lime.
"But I'm lucky that Greenfield who I supply, my pullet supplier Andrew O'Connell and Ennis Feeds are all very flexible and accommodating. But they have to be paid and I can't wave a magic wand and make those bills go away."
Mr McKenna is adamant that free-range egg production is the best method, but it comes with more risk of diseases such as Avian flu.
"Free-range hens are far happier but they are more exposed to the disease. The returns in no way reflect this increase in risk.
"If there was another outbreak I'd have to sell my farm. The house is not suitable for any other type of production."
He says the industry needs to come up with a constructive proposal to help poultry farmers who lose flocks to Avian flu.
"In cattle, if a reactor goes down there's compensation from the Department. But we get nothing. Something has to be done. If there's not going to be compensation, prices have to reflect the risk that farmers have to take on board.
"My neighbours and I, who are affected by this disease, are scared. There needs to be reassurance for us in the future. In this enterprise, the farmer is carrying the biggest risk. This cannot continue."