Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012: Second Stage

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill as a farmer and a person who was reared on a dairy farm. Animal welfare and health are very important. The two are intertwined but are separate issues also. I welcome the updating of legislation to reflect more accurately the needs and the requirements in regard to modern day animal welfare. However, there are some broad questions which concern me, including the possibility of the risk of duplication. I view animals in two categories, the first being commercially farmed animals which already require a herd number to be held by the farmer. This herd number is like a licence and farmers must adhere to very high standards, including good farming practice and cross compliance. The second category is pets, including exotic pets. I would have preferred to have seen the welfare of these animals dealt with separately. Nobody wants to see animals suffer and it is important rules and regulations are in place to ensure this does not occur.

I welcome the recognition of bio-security in this Bill. Clearly, bio-security issues, such as the prevention of foot and mouth disease and other diseases, are very relevant. However, one aspect of bio-security which has not been touched on and possibly should be looked at when time permits is the whole area of land segregation which acts as a barrier to the spread of disease. We are very fortunate in this country to have a highly productive tillage industry and it is important the industry is protected not only for the production of home grown feedstuffs but also the possibility down the line of home grown protein. This is important because currently we are completely reliant on soya from America which is a key component of our beef and dairy industry. I mention the unusual weather patterns we saw this year not only in Ireland but in America. We are at the end of the shipping line and it is vital that this product is available from an animal welfare and food security perspective.

Under Food Harvest 2020, there is a huge drive for milk production in Ireland but we need to be mindful of not wiping out all the tillage producing lands because currently these lands provide a strategic bio-security barrier to prevent the transmission of disease if, God forbid, we had an outbreak. Perhaps we need to look strategically at our land mass to encourage tillage in certain areas as a land barrier much in the same way as forestry companies periodically look at fire breaks in their plantations.

I refer to the penalties proposed. The distinction between farmer and pet owner needs to be underlined. If one is a farmer, one’s penalties are deducted from one’s single farm payment. However, if one does not have a single farm payment, I can see why these penalties would apply but I would not agree with a penalty being applied twice. I am concerned that the costs incurred by the officials implementing this legislation could be borne by the farmer or the person concerned.

I was glad the Minister recognised the need for sensitivity in regard to welfare cases. I have seen welfare cases in the past and these normally occur not because the person genuinely wanted to be cruel to animals but because of other circumstances whether physical or mental health or other issues in that person’s life. It would be morally and legislatively wrong for us to burden a person who is possibly the victim of circumstances with a very punitive punishment. This is a delicate area and needs to be handled very sensitively, which I am sure the Minister will do. It is certainly not an area for over-zealous and egotistical inspectors to get involved in. While I have seen all these regulations and requirements imposed on the animal owner, I have not seen a comprehensive list of the educational, practical and training requirements for these inspectors who will implement this legislation, especially if they are from NGOs.

I was of the belief that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine had the required skills and officers to do this work. I would be very slow to accept authorised officers having unlimited rights of access because without proper training, they could become a health and safety liability. I dislike the mention of search warrants for private dwellings. It does not fit in with the spirit of this legislation and my fear is that under the wrong stewardship, we could wrong decent people.

Under Part 3, section 13(1)(a) on the feeding of animals, there is a provision to provide quality, wholesome uncontaminated drinking water, which is only right. However, we have an issue here. The water system in rural Ireland is completely incapable of dealing with the expansion of the bovine herd under Food Harvest 2020. I regularly hear farmer screaming that they have water problems and lack of water pressure. People have water problems in many estates. While we might want water metering, the first thing we need to do is to stop the 40% of water leakages heading south into the ground. If a person has an issue relating to animal welfare because his or her local authority has failed to deliver the correct amount of water, one would wonder who bears the responsibility and who foots the bill in this case.

On a light-hearted note, for the purpose of this Bill, land is described as all land, including land covered by water. Many dairy and tillage farmers like me were not only farmers but fishermen over the past summer. Flooding was a huge problem but I arm sure that was not what was meant by the definition in this Bill.

I welcome the provision in regard to abandonment in section 14. This occurs regularly, most severely with mink but also with deer. In the past mink have been very destructive when released into the environment. Our domestic hens were all killed by wild mink which also wipe out duck populations. People released deer in the Nagle Mountains close to where I live and they have become uncontrollable, destructive, are a nuisance and have no natural predictor. It comes back to abandonment.

I refer to enforcement. The Bill states that officers are allowed to enter a premises at all reasonable times to inspect animal products and feeds. While this seems to be acceptable there is no time line. If I had animal feed in a shed five years ago, is it reasonable to expect that this shed should be inspected today?

When I used to deliver straw many farms kept feed products, such as calf nuts and dog nuts, in people’s homes. We need to mindful of this.

Section 38(1)(b) provides that enforcement officers may “examine an animal, animal product, animal feed, equipment, machinery or other thing”. What does “other thing” entail? It is possible that the paragraph is poorly worded but it is important that we are definitive in our legislation. Section 38(8) allows officers to move any equipment. We need to be clear about the timeframe is involved because we do not want to allow books or equipment to be removed for too long. Section 38(7) allows authorised officers to use reasonable force if necessary. This might be a step too far because if an officer cannot do his or her job we have a highly trained and competent police force that can gain access if required. Giving this power to an officer who may not have received proper security training and does not understand what reasonable force involves might produce undesirable consequences. As a farmer who owns livestock, I would be disappointed to hear an officer announce that he thinks he is almost James Bond. However, I am reassured by the Minister’s opening statement that NGO staff will only be employed in limited circumstances.

I congratulate the Minister for his proactive approach to agriculture and his hands on, knowledge based methodology. Animal health and welfare is highly important and while I have outlined some of the difficulties arising on the fringes of the legislation, they are not insurmountable obstacles. The fundamental basis of the Bill is sound and if we want to produce top quality milk and beef we cannot ignore welfare issues. The Bill will also address unpopular and illegal practices such as dog fighting and puts legislative requirements on pet owners who in some rare cases may have mistreated animals under their control. The vast majority of animals raised for commercial production are maintained at the highest standards and are well cared for. This is a vital component of our international reputation and the protections that the Bill offers in this regard are most welcome.