Reminder on threat of protesters on farms

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​Activist incursions refer to unauthorised entry by individuals or groups onto private farmland with the aim of protesting, documenting, or disrupting the agricultural practices which they are opposed to.

Incursions on Northern Ireland farms have historically taken place during the summer months and following stakeholder engagement with our counterpart farming unions across the United Kingdom in recent weeks, it is fair to say that a significant threat of such events currently exists. Therefore, our members must keep at the forefront of their minds, the possibility of an incursion occurring at any time. Such events cause great distress and concern for all farmers.

Activist groups often operate on the edge of legality, using tactics designed to garner public sympathy and media attention, which complicates the legal response. From previous experience, typically these extremists will survey potential targets for weeks or months in advance of an incursion. Once they have gathered enough information, they arrange an incursion. Alternatively, it is possible that activists will visit a site during the cover of darkness and position a surveillance camera which is collected at a later date. Farmers should make conscious observations as to the possibility of any such cameras being on their premises.

Activists often utilise social media platforms to reach a wide audience and secure funding for their initiatives. This allows them to circumvent traditional media channels and broadcast their activities in real-time to a global audience.

Pic: stock imagePic: stock image
Pic: stock image

Given the intent of the individuals involved, the most obvious first step is making sure your own farm is in order. It is impossible to defend the indefensible and as such farmers need to ensure they are complying with all legal requirements and assurance scheme standards at all times.

During unexpected visits, activists may choose to film instances of sick or injured animals and deceased livestock, as this type of content tends to evoke strong emotions. It is important for farmers to carefully consider how the visual representation of any sick or injured animals on their property may be perceived if captured on camera. Sick animals should be isolated in a clean and comfortable hospital pen. In the case of deceased animals, it is recommended to promptly move them to a secure storage area until they can be properly disposed of. Additionally, it is advisable to use a spray marker to clearly label fallen stock before placing them in the designated storage area. By marking the animals, it eliminates the possibility of activists falsely claiming that the deceased animal was neglected on the property.

One of the primary concerns for farmers affected by these incidents is the biosecurity risks involved with an incursion. Additionally, the intrusion of unknown individuals onto their property can be a significant breach of privacy. It is recommended that each farmer assess their current security measures and determine if they adequately meet their requirements or if enhancements are necessary. This may include ensuring that CCTV systems are operational and have adequate storage capacity for footage. Visible signage should also be utilised, although it may not deter protestors, it can aid in their prompt removal from the premises with the assistance of the PSNI.

Typically, break-ins of this nature are treated as Trespass which is a civil tort. If forcible entry has been used by the activists to gain access, prosecution will be more easily achieved. With that in mind, farmers are encouraged to lock buildings and remove keys at night. Where protestors have entered your property and are intentionally preventing you from carrying out your daily routine of feeding and caring for animals, this trespass can be elevated to aggravated trespass which is a criminal offence. In these instances, police officers can order individuals to leave the premises and if they refuse or return this is an additional offence.

If you do come across these extremists on your farm, calmly and politely ask them to leave before calling the police. Do not permit access to the press as additional publicity will be ideal for activists. You should consider gathering your own photo or video evidence of car registrations, and any damage caused (this will be useful if you wish to attempt to prosecute). It would be prudent to check the site for hidden cameras. Do not permit any intruders to take any livestock with them when leaving the site. In the absence of permission, any livestock removed can be treated as theft and will warrant further prosecution.