Was there a better way of dealing with the crisis?

November 20, 2001 The Irish Times by Sylvia Thompson
Eight months on from the confirmation of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the Cooley Peninsula, Co Louth, farmers in the area are still distraught. Not only were their sheep slaughtered, but in some cases their way of life was changed forever. Still mourning the loss of their stock and disdainful of the media branding of them as "ghost sheep" farmers, some are still fighting for compensation - others have already moved on. But all are conscious that the sacrifices they made may have saved Ireland from a much more severe foot-and-mouth crisis.

Anthony McShane (50) is a sheep farmer in Carlingford, Co Louth. He inherited his 100-acre farm (including a share in commonage) from an uncle. His wife, Grainne, works part-time in the Holy Trinity Heritage Centre in Carlingford. They have two children, D nal (16) and adaoin (12) The Outbreak

"It was evident how badly out of control the disease was in the UK. In some ways, I'm amazed we escaped with one outbreak. When the outbreak in Meigh (Co Armagh) occurred, I really got a chill. I put all the bio-security measures in place. Then, I heard the Proleek (Co Louth) outbreak was confirmed. My farm was at risk because with shared use of commonage, flocks move quite freely between different areas."

The Cull

"Initially, I was quite determined to hold on to my flock, but there was a complete compulsory cull of sheep on the Cooley Peninsula. I lost 700 ewes, 500 lambs and 35 rams. It took some time to come to terms with the loss.

"It can be argued that the foot-and-mouth crisis became more of an economic disaster than it could have been. Was there a better way of dealing with it? There was nothing wrong with my sheep, and I had to sell them. The cull came at a time when I would never have dreamt of killing my ewes - many of them heavily pregnant. It does make you wonder about it all. Yet could it have become an epidemic if the Department of Agriculture had not taken extreme action, as it did? That was an argument I couldn't dispute, even though I still do have questions about the whole thing. In some ways, because the Cooleys are on a peninsula, it couldn't have happened in a better place.

"One week before the complete compulsory cull, we did ask if we could pull off a nucleus flock of Scottish blackface sheep for genetic reasons. We suggested that these sheep could be closely monitored. The Department of Agriculture officials only offered to keep semen, but really it would have been necessary to get the ovaries as well to keep the breed alive."

The Impact

"Like any problem in a business, the foot-and-mouth outbreak did affect my family. Our children were aware of the impact the foot-and-mouth crisis had on Gr inne and me. D nal worked quite a bit on the farm and took an interest in the purebred sheep on the hills. When the army moved out on to the mountain to shoot wild goats (they had to kill all cloven-hoofed animals), they inadvertently killed 20 sheep, and some of them were mine.

D nal and I went to intervene, and he was quite upset about it. While this issue was subsequently dealt with by the Department of Agriculture, it was a traumatic incident for a 16-year-old to experience.

"The Cooley Mountains were a strange, empty place after the cull - especially the fact that it happened in the springtime, when things are usually coming alive. It was a complete contrast to what would have been happening in life. To wipe out one section of nature like that impacted on the whole area. In the fields, hay and silage was cut and used; but on the hills, the grass and the heather grew.

"The mountains in our area haven't been restocked yet. People will bring sheep back on to the hills in early spring and try to restock them. But they will have to be vaccinated against ticks and they will take some time to acclimatise."

"Initially, there were between 10,000 - 15,000 sheep missing (inconsistencies in sheep numbers were discovered). People took the view that all the farmers in the Cooleys were abusing the system. I was annoyed about this. I accept that there were discrepancies, and I was shocked they were on the scale that they were.

"But it took away people's sympathy for the area. Everyone became a suspect, and in some people's minds, they still are. But, farmers can lose 10 sheep or so in every 200 - 300, and they may not be aware of the losses. Having incorrect numbers for your flocks can be done by intent, and there's no excuse and no defence for that. I'd say that it would clear the issue up for the rest of us if they are caught."

The Community

"Outside of farming, I think things have picked up pretty well. Carlingford did benefit from all the media coverage, and more people became aware of the beauty of the area. Some people had previously thought that we were in Northern Ireland."

Getting back to work

"There is a very buoyant sheep trade at the moment which we are losing out on. We have been the fall guys and this opportunity will never present itself again. It's very frustrating. In September, I restocked to a lesser extent and I've 60 per cent of stock that I had pre-cull."

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