Arguing till the cows come home

 

John Hanrahan blames the State's removal of more than 300 cattle from his farm this week on a legacy of financial loss due to industrial pollution, writes Barry Roche

To the north, Slievenamon looms large against the skyline, while to the south the shoulders of the Comeraghs taper down as they flank the Suir on its journey eastwards towards Carrick.

The panoramic view is stunning, but on a cold day like last Thursday it holds little attraction for 58-year-old farmer John Hanrahan as he fights the latest chapter in a long struggle to remain farming at Ballycurkeen House in Ballydine, Co Tipperary, where his ancestors have farmed since 1307.

Hanrahan is engaged in animated - and at times agitated - discussions with the green-parka-clad officials from the Department of Agriculture charged with removal of his livestock.

"My livelihood is at stake here," repeats Hanrahan emotionally as he waves a letter from his solicitor, Paul Derham, at the officials and argues that it means they must put a stay on the removal of animals from his farm on animal welfare grounds.

The cold wind blowing in from the east brings with it a flurry of snowflakes and many of the Department of Agriculture officials and the cattle handlers accompanying them take shelter in the lee of one of the many huge, leafless beech trees that fringe the Hanrahan home. They turn away in a huddle as Hanrahan argues with their superiors about the departure of a lorry carrying calves from the farm. "It's a sorry story," mutters one; nobody disagrees.

Negotiations continue and some sort of stand-off seems to have been reached. The officials leave and Hanrahan, followed by his band of loyal sheepdogs, makes his way back inside the creeper-clad Ballycurkeen House, where he lives with his wife, Selina.

Inside, he speaks passionately and proudly about his family connections with Ballycurkeen - how it was part of a large estate farmed by his ancestors, the Mandevilles, and how his great great grand-uncle was John Mandeville, the 19th-century Land League campaigner. He tells of how his late mother, Mary, moved there as "a maiden lady of just 18" in 1941 and how she married John Hanrahan from near Clonmel, and how he himself has been farming there for almost 50 years.

"I've been involved in farming all my life. I had my first cow at the age of seven - I still remember her, a red and white shorthorn," he recalls, and goes on to tell how he and his sister, Dolly, ran the farm with their mother after their father died in 1963.

Dolly had married and left the farm by the time John's problems with nearby pharmaceutical firm Merck Sharpe & Dohme came to a head in the 1980s after some 200 of his animals died due to emissions from the plant. He took the American-owned multinational to the High Court in 1985 and lost, but he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and, on July 5th, 1988 it ruled in his favour, against the company.

Hanrahan maintains that that was far from the end of his problems, as he says he has had to battle with continuing pollution problems and a legacy of financial loss from the settlement. A Merck Sharpe & Dohme spokesman was unavailable for comment yesterday, but the company's director of public affairs, John Condon, told the Irish Examiner last September that the company rejected Hanrahan's allegations about continuing pollution.

"The company is completely satisfied that its environmental and health and safety management, which is a matter of public record, is exemplary," said Condon in response to claims by Hanrahan that he was still suffering pollution problems on his farm.

In his court case in the 1980s, Hanrahan had sought £1.7 million in damages from Merck Sharpe & Dohme. The company had offered £500,000 and in the end he settled for £805,000 plus legal costs of between £700,000 and £1.1 million.

But there were other financial consequences too, and it is these that lie at the heart of the current problems which led Department of Agriculture officials to arrive at the farm last Wednesday and begin removing cattle because of a lack of fodder for them.

ACCORDING TO HANRAHAN, the first problem lies with the department setting his quota at 150,000 gallons, based on his milk yield in 1983, when his animals were suffering badly from emissions from the Merck Sharpe & Dohme plant.

"They based the quota on a sick herd," he says, before explaining that his quota was later increased to 227,000 gallons in 1998 and then arguing that if he was entitled to that quota in 1998, he was also entitled to it in 1983 and was thus deprived of it for some 15 years.

He is claiming that the department owes him €1.4 million for the alleged loss of quota revenue. He also claims Kerry Group owes him €1 million because department officials allegedly instructed it to not allow his milk into the human food chain.

"When our milk was taken out of the food chain, it went from £1.07 a gallon to 80 pence a gallon and we were not properly compensated," says Hanrahan, but both the Department of Agriculture and Kerry Group strongly reject his assertions.

A Department of Agriculture spokesman says that the department has treated Hanrahan "very well and very generously" in relation to quota, while a Kerry Group spokesman says the company did "our very best for Mr Hanrahan and we don't believe he has a case against us". According to Hanrahan, the lost revenue has left him with a constant struggle to make the farm - which he works with his younger son, Ambrose - pay its way, and crippling debts have resulted in the ending of valuable credit with several suppliers.

HE POINTS TO letters sent to both the Minister for Agriculture, Mary Coughlan, and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, highlighting his problems - but it is perhaps a letter from his agricultural adviser, Dr Tom Butler, which best encapsulates his difficulties and explains his fodder crisis.

According to Butler, Hanrahan's problems stem from an inability to fund both "reseeding grasslands to upgrade pasture quality and fertiliser costs, which is the main reason for a constant shortage of grazing grass and the harvest of insufficient sileage quantities". There is also "an inability to sell livestock due to poor condition. Very poor prices would be received at either market or factory without upgrading the feed input for a period prior to sale," says Butler in his letter to Hanrahan for forwarding to the Department of Agriculture, dated January 13th last.

In a subsequent letter, on March 3rd, Butler also points out the difficulties that Hanrahan has in selling cattle "for realistic prices at the present time because of animal condition and customer attitude to stock from farm". The point is made even more bluntly in correspondence to Hanrahan, for the department, from cattle auctioneer Colin Johnson, who relates how he organised a sale at the Hanrahan farm on June 11th, 2005 but it turned out to "be an utter debacle and fiasco because only one person attended at the farm". Johnson summarises the problem when he refers to offering a client some replacement heifers from Hanrahan's farm in January, but the farmer refused to contemplate buying the animals because of "health herd stigma".

Hanrahan says he warned the department last May that he was going to have these problems and he wrote again on December 9th, warning that he would have to slaughter the animals due to welfare problems and seeking permission to bury them on the farm.

However, Tipperary South veterinary inspector Toby Moran inspected the herd on December 22nd and was satisfied with their health, general body condition and fodder availability. "I believe there is no welfare problem on this farm at this time," he noted.

But three months on, the department decided it had no option but to remove animals from Hanrahan's farm after the development of "a potentially serious welfare situation", and officials with livestock trucks moved onto the farm on Wednesday.

ACCORDING TO THE department, the move followed Hanrahan's failure to comply with notices served on him on February 10th and 20th "directing him to provide sufficient fodder of acceptable quality to satisfy the nutritional and welfare needs of the animals on his farm".

"On March 1st certain proposals were put to Mr Hanrahan with a view to assisting him in dealing with the welfare of the animals on his farm. Mr Hanrahan did not accept these proposals," said the department in a statement.

"Mr Hanrahan has failed to comply with the terms of the notices and the condition of his animals continues to pose an unacceptable welfare risk," it continued, adding that Hanrahan has a right to appeal to the District Court the proposed sale of his animals.

"The department's primary concern is the welfare of these animals and accordingly the animals will be removed to a location where they can be cared for on a full-time basis and provided with sufficient quality fodder to meet their nutritional and welfare needs."

By Thursday, Hanrahan reckons that 391 of his animals have been removed, with 120 milking cows remaining. But department officials withdraw at around 7.30pm that night when, following the collapse of a deal about the appeal period, they find their access blocked by a tractor.

The Irish Times understands that no further action will be taken by the department over the weekend but how this dispute will proceed in the coming week and beyond is the subject of much speculation around Carrick-on-Suir.

"It's very sad to see his animals being removed," says one local, who doesn't wish to be named, "especially given everything John has been through over the years. But he's a tough man - he's bounced back before from worse and I've no doubt he'll bounce back from this too."