By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As foot and mouth disease continues to spread in Northern Ireland, a sustained campaign against livestock smugglers has been launched on both sides of the border.
There have been further incidents of unidentified cattle being abandoned on side roads without any ear-tag identification and confidential telephone hotlines have increased the pressure on smugglers and the rogue farmers who have been buying from them.
About 5,000 sheep and 400 cattle have been slaughtered throughout the Republic because of concerns they may have been illegally imported or could have come in contact with smuggled livestock. No compensation is paid if the animals are illegally imported.
As four virus outbreaks have now been confirmed in the North, the RUC has intercepted illegal livestock movements and a series of widespread raids on farms are being carried out in the south.
Junior Agriculture Minister Noel Davern said the department is getting a "tremendous reaction" from people wanting to give information to both the department’s specialist unit and the Garda Criminal Assets Bureau. He said the raids by the authorities are ongoing. "We are closing down on these people fairly fast," he said.
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Davern said the impact of the investigation has been described to him as being like throwing a stone into a pond.
"This investigation unit started in Mullingar and the ripples have gone out from there and it is going to spread right throughout the whole country," he said. "There are quite a few people involved."
Davern had appealed for information. "If we were at war, we would give information freely," he said. "We are at war against the disease and the future of our farming community is at stake."
Davern, who is TD for County Tipperary, said he was "shocked" that there had been six cases there of animals being dumped on local roads and the overall smuggling situation appeared to be far worse than they had thought.
"These are not neighbors or friends; these are people who are actually out to destroy our community," he said. "In this case it is not only foot and mouth, but BSE as well. We can have that [BSE] incubating in our herd, which was not our herd originally, and in about five years’ time we will be barred again from every other country."
Irish Farmers Association President Tom Parlon said the discoveries of smuggled animals is "worrying and disturbing" but he said he is confident there had been no cross-border smuggling of animals since the restrictions were imposed after the first outbreak on the island in South Armagh last month.
Parlon lives close to Tipperary, where most of the cattle have been abandoned, and he was surprised by the level of illegal movements.
"I understand that gardai have identified a number of godfathers who have been involved in this in the last year," he said. "They are smugglers. Previously they were involved in diesel, petrol, tires, cigarettes and alcohol, you name it."
He had received reports that in addition to abandoning animals on the roads, farmers had also slaughtered smuggled animals and buried them on farms.
Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Brid Rodgers said it is vital there be a freeze on movements of animals if the virus is to be contained in the North and she warned no compensation would be paid to rogue farmers if their herds are culled.
"I understand there are still a small minority of farmers carrying out unauthorized movements," she said. "That is incredible. It is absolutely criminal."
A new case of the virus was confirmed on a farm at Ardboe in County Tyrone on Sunday near a previous outbreak and tests are awaited on other suspect cases in County Antrim.
Republic eases restrictions
Meanwhile, on April 19, 30 days after the confirmation of the only case south of the border, in County Louth, the EU lifted trade restrictions on agricultural-related products and declared the Republic to be free of disease.
Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh further relaxed restrictions but warned about complacency creeping in that could undermine controls.
"The stark reality is that the recent outbreaks in Northern Ireland indicates that the virus is on the island of Ireland," he said.
Artificial insemination restarted on Monday, but Walsh said that if disinfection procedures at farms are not adequate, technicians have been instructed not to carry out inseminations. Livestock markets also opened as assembly points for slaughter animals on Monday.
Tourist hostels and guest houses on farms can reopen beginning April 30 and showjumping can resume on April 28.
Sporting activities involving teams from Northern Ireland will be allowed provided they do not involve participants or supporters from within the 10-kilometer exclusion zones surrounding confirmed virus outbreaks.
Players or supporters from Northern Ireland farms are being discouraged from traveling south for games.
Three days of celebrations, street theater, parades and fireworks for a re-scheduled St Patrick’s Day have been confirmed for May 18-20. All St Patrick’s Day parades on March 17 were cancelled because of the virus crisis.