TALES FROM THE FIELDS: Store auction ban resented by Ulster farmers

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It was reported during this week in 1968 that mounting pressure was being brought to bear on the Ministry of Agriculture to relax a ban on store cattle sales in Northern Ireland.

Farmers throughout the province were claiming that they were suffering hardship as a direct result of the cancellation of sales as a foot and mouth precautionary measure.

Mr Edwin Conn, chief veterinary officer of the ministry, had reiterated that it was “much too early” to consider lifting restrictions. It was not, he said, the time to think about relaxing precautions. The time to do that, he added, was when the disease had been completely wiped out.

The ban had, however, imposed serious problems for both buyers and sellers in Northern Ireland, and strong criticism had been levelled at the Ministry of Agriculture, from many quarters, on its decision not to ease restrictions.

A deputation from the Ulster Farmers’ Union was to meet with senior ministry officials to discuss the situation and the problems and implications which had arisen in the trade as a result of the precautionary measures.

It was noted that it was unlikely that a definite date for a relaxation of restrictions would emerge from the discussions. The UFU fatstock and pigs committee, while appreciating the position of farmers was becoming more difficult as time went on, was anxious that the safety precautions against the disease should not be jettisoned.

Mr Alastair MacLurg, secretary of the union’s fatstock and pigs committee said: “There is considerable hardship for both those who buy and sell stores. the committee appreciates this and has asked the ministry to meet a deputation this week.

“But, at the same time, the most important consideration is to ensure that the disease is kept out of Northern Ireland.

“The effect on the store trade has been very serious indeed but we must ensure, first of all, foot and mouth does not get in.”

It was noted that it seemed certain that it would be several weeks before the Ministry of Agriculture issued a directive on the sale of store cattle, as the possible risk resulting from the Christmas holiday traffic had not yet been eliminated.

Although several of the province’s leading auction marts were providing livestock owners with an information service - designed to help them to overcome the marketing difficulties posed as a result of the restrictions - reports of difficulties in both selling and buying stores had been coming into the UFU headquarters.

When a sample survey was taken at the three Belfast livestock marts, the vast majority of producers who were interviewed claimed that there was a strong case for a relaxation in the restrictions.

“I have been greatly inconvenienced. . . “, “there’s greater hardship ahead. . .”, the ministry is going a bit too far. . .” were some of the views put forward.

Several farmers strongly criticised the ministry for what they described as “inconsistencies” in their foot and mouth policy, one declaring: “The ministry’s attitude varies from the sublime to ridiculous.”

Not all farmers, however, were angered at the ministry’s no to easing of restrictions. One Co Down farmer said: “The ministry is fully justified in continuing to impose a ban on store sales. Foot and mouth must be kept out at all costs and, if there were no store sales, an outbreak, if it did occur, could be isolated much more quickly.”

Against that, a Co Antrim farmer claimed that with prospective buyers having to “tour the highways and by-ways - visiting countless farms”, this in itself, constituted a disease risk.

Mr John Colgan, managing director, of John Colgan and Sons, Belfast, said: “I did not really expect the ministry to ease the ban on store sales. There would have been more chance of a relaxation prior to the recent outbreak at Nottingham – outside the infected area – but I feel this has dashed all hopes of an early return to normal selling.”

When the restrictions were finally removed, Mr Colgan forecast that store cattle prices would rise to well above average levels.

“However,” he added, “this price boom is not likely to last more than a month because supplies of Eire cattle will tend to depress the market.”