End 'reign of terror' on farmers, says senator
Department is conducting 'illegal' searches of farms, claims Higgins
A government senator has called on the Department of Agriculture to end its "reign of terror" on farmers by conducting a series of "illegal" searches without notice, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins has accused officials in Simon Coveney's department of terrorising farmers across Ireland by these searches, which she said are spreading "fear and dread" amongst many in rural Ireland.
In response, the department defended the inspections, saying, where possible, they should be unannounced to ensure proper compliance with the rules.
According to Ms Higgins, inspectors arrive on farms to conduct inspections without giving any prior notice to the farmer.
"Some of the inspectors from the department are arriving under the guise of the animal feed and hygiene regulations, where no notice period is required under EU law.
"However, they then carry out tagging inspections on cattle and sheep, even though 48 hours' notice is required, and further inspections on land eligibility, where up to 14 days notice should be given, she said.
Ms Higgins said by not giving the proper notice to farmers, these officials are acting "illegally".
As a consequence, the farmers of east Galway and other counties in the west "dread" hearing about departmental inspections, she said, with some fearing they may jeopardise their single farm payments if they refuse to co-operate with the officials.
"There is a huge element of fear throughout the community. Often farmers are afraid to stand up for their rights for fear of any detrimental action being taken against them, specifically against their single farm payment."
Land eligibility checks must be carried out on 5 per cent of applicant farmers, while 3 per cent of farmers must be inspected under the bovine identification and registration requirements.
Every year 3 per cent of sheep and goat farmers must be inspected, covering 5 per cent of the flock. By law, all land-eligibility inspections must be finalised before any payments can be issued.
On foot of these inspections, Ms Higgins has set up a website to help farmers learn their rights.
"It is wrong and an unacceptable reign of terror over the farming community. These people are completely unaware of their rights and EU law. A new charter of rights must be sent to all farmers in Ireland so they can be fully informed of their rights," she said.
In total 11,900 farmers were inspected under the 2011 schemes. Some 7,400 inspections involved a farm visit. Some 130,000 farmers apply annually under these schemes.
The Department of Agriculture said it tried to integrate inspections with a view to minimising the number of farm visits.
"The farmer can request a deferral of those particular elements for up to 48 hours in the case of animal identification and up to 14 days in the case of land eligibility.
"In so far as advance notice of inspections is concerned, in general, all inspections should be unannounced," a spokeswoman said.