Farm Ireland

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Opinion: We will pay a high price for ignoring the impact of illegal slurry spreading

January 16 was a massive day on the calendar for slurry spreading
January 16 was a massive day on the calendar for slurry spreading
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I hated the approach to discipline that some teachers took (and some still do, I believe!). He/she would be going out of the classroom and tell everyone to be quiet. A few smart-alecs would always act up and, instead of going after the culprits, everyone would be punished.

This thought crossed my mind as I drove around the country over the past number of weeks, seeing clear evidence that slurry had been spread. The closed period did not end anywhere before last Saturday.

Those spreading slurry were not acting the maggot - the simple reality is that their tanks were full and they had to get some slurry away.

This is a carryover from last year's weather.

Many farmers had slurry left in their tanks going into the winter.

However, it can't be ignored that, with the exception of 2013, in every other year of the current decade, there have been calls for delaying the start of the closed period.

Hopefully, the floods which decimated Donegal last August will not be seen again for some time, but climate change is real. There will be higher rainfall, more extreme weather events and greater unpredictability.

I know there are those who think I have a set against dairy farmers but, since quotas ended almost three years ago, many farmers have significantly increased cow numbers.

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I would question whether some of these have expanded their slurry storage to the same extent.

I am not willing to silently watch our dairy sector develop a reputation as a dirty industry, as it did two decades ago in New Zealand, where it has struggled to shake off that label.

I got phonecalls from a few farmers last week who were apoplectic at what they saw happening.

What does it matter, you may ask? Other than the environmental aspect?

Their prime concern, and mine in airing this, is the potential impact on our farms down the line, if the country's water quality deteriorates.

The current rules for agriculture could be tightened and all farmers required to increase their slurry storage.

I believe the majority of farmers are trying to do things right but, when problems arise, we all pay the price.

On the other hand, it's not all farmers' fault.

Last October, it was made clear to anyone who was intending to apply for an extension for spreading that they would be prioritised for Local Authority inspection, a move rightly seen at the time as grossly unfair.

So what is to be done?

Who is policing this? Or not?

There is a long-running campaign about insurance fraud, which is often seen as a victimless crime as no-one is hurt.

But it costs us all, in terms of higher premiums. This industry has set up a confidential service to which suspected incidents of fraud can be reported.

I don't think that something similar would be a good idea in this instance. It's not fair to ask people to squeal on their peers or neighbours, and it wouldn't elicit much information.

Among other suggestions are a high-profile prosecution like that of jockey Lester Piggott for tax evasion, or the seizure of equipment from the farmers or contractors involved.

But what about the role of farming bodies and their leaders in this matter? Is their job just about representation, or should they also be showing leadership?

Farming is no different to any other aspect of life. When someone in authority ignores wrongdoing, they implicitly condone it, which is demoralising and alienating for those, who have done no wrong - the silent majority in most cases.

Are the farm bodies afraid of losing members? But what of the impact of their inaction on other members? And what about obeying rules?

Or the greater good?

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