Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent) | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I do not intend to take up the full ten minutes allocated to me. There are just a few issues that I want to raise with the Minister. He has already addressed several of the matters I had hoped to raise.

I do not know if the Minister has had a chance, in this House or elsewhere, to acknowledge the very tragic passing of Paddy Dunican, the manager of Kilbeggan racecourse. It is appropriate that I raise this matter here in the presence of Senator Daly as well. I am sure the Minister, given his brief, came across Paddy at some stage. Paddy was a consummate professional; a very pleasant individual to know and to work with. He did many good things for charities along the way, but, above all, he was synonymous with Kilbeggan Races. He worked enormously hard to promote the brand of Kilbeggan Races. Obviously, the very tragic circumstances of his passing are known. Our sympathies go to his family and all of this friends. His death is a timely reminder to us all.

I do not think I am telling any secrets here, and the Minister will have seen the article in last weekend's edition of the Sunday Independent. The tragic situation which unfortunately enveloped Paddy was connected with professional challenges and seems also to have been in some way connected to his interactions with the racing authorities. I do not intend to say anything controversial, other than to ask whether it would be timely for us to consider the pressures that can come on those who organise and run small racecourses in particular. It is often the case in life these days, with the increasing complexity of things, that smaller organisations can suffer. We see that in medical practices, solicitor's practices and so on. At the same time, it is undoubtedly the case that our smaller racecourses contribute something vital and irreplaceable to the life of the nation. Having regard to the tragic events that took place, I wonder if it would be timely for some consideration to be given at official level to the particular challenges that smaller racecourses and those who work in them face. Perhaps there are issues to be addressed by Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board and a need to stand back and look at how things operate there. Are there things that could be done better so as to ensure that there is a fair shot for everybody, for the larger racecourses and organisations as well as the smaller organisations and racetracks? I do not think I am making any inappropriate linkage when I say that maybe we could take this tragedy and use it as a time for reflection or further examination. I just wanted to bring that up because I knew Paddy and liked him. He was pleasant to deal with. He had been in touch with me and other Senators and Deputies in the Houses in recent years about issues that were relevant to Kilbeggan and other small racecourses. His passing is a great loss. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

There is some connection here with what we have been talking about in the context of the weather crisis. I heard the Minister during the Commencement debate earlier referring to our seven-month winter. Green grass is lovely to see but when farmers cannot put their cattle or sheep out in the green grass, it is tormenting to see. I was struck by a very good piece in The Journal in recent days which contained feedback from farmers. There were stories like those we are all hearing, including that of the woman who was fighting to keep 13 new lambs alive because the driving rain would kill them if she put them into the wrong field. The piece outlined the upset that farmers feel when they cannot put their cattle out and are worried about fodder. The Minister says there is enough fodder, but there may be issues and challenges in individual cases. Another issue is the inability to put out slurry and the mounting quantities of it on farms.I am close to this situation myself and I know it is a very upsetting time for farmers.

The Minister's written speech referred to the On Feirm Ground programme, which equips people in regular contact with farmers to look out for and spot the signs of farmers who might be struggling and to signpost them to appropriate supports. I welcome that as a very good thing, but could more be done? Very often, those who most need help are the least likely to seek it. Sometimes those who might benefit from assistance could do with knowing more about what is there to help them in the event of mental health or other challenges arising from the particular challenges of the moment, in agriculture in particular. Could more be done in terms of an advertising campaign? Is there a helpline, for example? I know there is a Bord Bia helpline for people with regard to inspections and so on. Could we fill out the jigsaw with something more that could be of benefit to farmers at this very challenging time?

I note that the level of rainfall in March was almost one and a half times the average rate in previous years. It is hard to know sometimes what the weather patterns are telling us, but this is beyond dispute. I heard the president of the Agricultural Consultants Association, Michael Ryan, draw attention to how farmers, in particular, are being affected by the changing weather. I am not telling the Minister anything he does not know. I note the sympathy and support from the Government in the form of various schemes and the decision to hold back on inspections to the degree that is appropriate to deal with this unusual situation. I encourage the Minister to continue to do all he is doing and more. I ask whether something more could be achieved in bringing awareness to farmers of the supports that are available if needed.

I would also like to ask about the state of play regarding a new veterinary hospital and training centre. I understand that the Minister and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy O'Donovan, intend to make a joint application under the national development plan. Proposals have been made. The HEA has assessed that there would be capacity for 90 student places at UL; for 40 student places at the Atlantic Technological University in Mountbellew; and for 40 student places at the South East Technological University. Where does the Minister see this going, and how soon? According to a statistic I read, just 80 of approximately 300 people who signed onto the veterinary register had been trained in Ireland. What would the Minister consider to be the appropriate ratio in terms of new vets coming on stream? What would he consider to be ideal? There is no doubt that there are benefits to studying abroad but where does the Minister want this to go in terms of the number of extra veterinary student places? Is 80 to 100 places considered to be desirable? I understand there were 581 applications for 85 undergraduate places in 2022 so clearly the sector is underserved.

In particular, there seems to be a problem around getting access to vets for large animal practice. It is good news that some of these professions have become more gender inclusive in recent years but that can lead to knock-on challenges, certainly in the view of some vets and farmers. How are the various desirable objectives - getting greater gender balance into the profession while at the same time ensuring there is not a shortage of vets who can take on large animal practice, in particular - being achieved? I do not know if the Minister is hearing what I hear anecdotally, which is that there can be a flight away from large animal practice to small animal practice. That presumably creates an imbalance in the system that is not helpful. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts, comments and perhaps even corrections on that.

Finally, when I last met the Minister, I raised the question of consultation on the proposed ban on electronic collars for training dogs. I was grateful that at that time the Minister agreed to extend the consultation period.Where are we at with that? Is the fruit of that consultation in? I said at the time that it would be important to consult with vets, scientists, dog owners and all the various stakeholders, including animal welfare people. I believe there is a way to use these devices in a controlled way that is appropriate, leads to the most humane outcomes and prevents the need to slaughter dogs where they attack sheep and so on. The Minister may have different views on that. We are both coming from a sincere place on it but I would like to ask the Minister where things are at and what are the Government's plans in respect of that issue.


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