Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

7:00 am

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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This matter relates to the fur farming industry in Ireland and I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, in the Chamber to take the matter, which is a burning issue in my own area. There are five fur farms nationally, with two of them from my part of the country.

Fur farms last year exported 200,000 mink pelts to the value of €7.5 million, produced from local raw materials. The Irish fur farming industry receives no subsidies either from the EU or the Government. There are currently five fur farms, with three located in Gaeltacht areas and two in my own area. These farms are a natural and important part of the agricultural sector and contribute to maintaining vibrant rural communities. In these areas there are few alternative opportunities of employment available, and total employment created directly from the five fur farms is 80 jobs, with a spin-off of at least another 80 jobs from food, transport, engineering, refrigeration and construction works. Last year €1.6 million was spent in direct wages between the five fur farms and as an example, one farm in my area spends €35,000 per month on electricity to keep the freezers going. That is over €400,000 per year.

Consumption of by-products is an additional benefit. The farms are valuable purchasers of animal by-products, with the fur farms in Ireland receiving approximately 2,000 tonnes of fish offal and 7,000 tonnes of poultry, pork, cattle and sheep by-products from Irish processing plants. These processing plants can make cost savings on not having to pay rendering charges.

Farmed fur animals are not wild and like any other farmed species, they differ markedly from the wild strain of the species. These cannot be kept successfully in domestic conditions. There is EU legislation dealing with fur farming, particularly the manner in which they are kept, and mink farms have been in operation within Europe for over 150 years. The Irish Fur Breeders Association is a member of the European Fur Breeders Association, an umbrella organisation for fur breeders in 21 European countries. The European Fur Breeders Association has introduced its own code of practice for the care and handling of farmed mink, fitch and fox, which completely reflects the recommendations of the Council of Europe. All members of the European Fur Breeders Association have adopted this code of practice. Animal welfare is paramount at national as well as EU level and fur producers here have the greatest interest in the well-being of their animals. Veterinary inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as the Minister will know, make regular and unannounced visits to Irish fur farms.

Currently in Europe there are 7,200 fur farms operating, with an annual production of 31 million fur pelts, almost 58% of world production. What the fur farming industry needs is an assurance that it will be allowed to continue. The former Government, led by the Green Party, was seeking to have fur farming banned in this country by way of not renewing licences. To take an example, the licence of one fur farm in my constituency, and by extension all the other fur farms, will run out in June of next year. The farm requires forward planning because the owners must buy in raw material such as food for the mink. In addition, they must reinvest to develop their own business model. They cannot do that without a guarantee that they will have a licence after next June.

The headline figure for employment in the fur farming industry is 80 jobs provided directly and an additional 80 indirectly. That is 160 jobs. The State currently has a production capacity of €7.5 million and this is growing at a fast pace. Given the current economic climate, it would be foolish for any Government not to renew licences. While the Green Party may have its own view on fur farming, I can assure the Minister that it does form part of the agricultural development of the country and meets all the standards laid down by veterinary officers in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The five fur farms in Ireland are highly compliant and meet all the required standards. I hope a pragmatic approach will be taken in renewing these licences and providing continuity for the industry.

If the Minister of State is not in a position to give a favourable response tonight, although I hope he will be, I ask that either he or the Minister, Deputy Coveney, meet the representative body of the industry in the next week to ten days, if at all possible, to provide reassurance and a direction to those in the industry.

Photo of Shane McEnteeShane McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. We seem to be meeting up all the time when I come to the Seanad. Like myself, he is from the rural end of Ireland and it is crucial that we protect our way of life there. If I do not give the Senator the blunt answer he requires, I ask him to approach me again. I am aware there are deadlines and I know exactly what the Senator is saying about people planning their future. We might have to push things a bit further.

My Department is responsible for the licensing of mink farming in Ireland under the Musk Rats Act 1933 and the Musk Rats Act 1933 (Application to Mink) Order 1965, which prohibits the keeping of mink except under licences issued by my Department. Licences, which are usually issued for three years, are issued only if the applicant is found to be compliant with a number of key conditions following an inspection by officers from my Department. These conditions include a requirement that mink farmers take adequate measures to prevent the escape of the mink from their premises. Licence requirements include a provision that mink shall be kept only at the premises specified in the licence and must be kept in cages or other containers to prevent their escape. All buildings or enclosures where mink are housed must be bounded by a guard fence built to prevent their escape. Mink farmers are also obliged to ensure that trees, shrubs or undergrowth do not grow in such a position in relation to boundary fences that they would facilitate the escape of mink. Any holes or drainage channels must also be effectively blocked.

There are five licensed mink farms in Ireland. All five licences expire in the course of 2012. Between them, the mink farmers farm an estimated 225,000 mink. The industry claims to be responsible, as the Senator said, for 80 jobs directly. Mink farmers do not receive any State or EU support for their farming activity.

I am aware that fur farming is a significant agricultural activity in many European countries, notably Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. The European Fur Breeders' Association, which represents breeders' associations in 15 countries, estimates that there are 7,200 fur farmers in EU member states, who are responsible for 64% of worldwide mink fur production. The association estimates that the fur sector creates up to 60,000 full-time jobs in Europe and that the value of EU-farmed fur came to €1.5 billion in 2010. It also points out that the industry provides an efficient use for more than 1 million tonnes of animal by-products each year from the fishing and meat industries.

I am aware that although the farming of mink is carried out in many European countries, there is a body of opinion which believes that a ban on the farming of animals such as mink for their fur should be introduced on ethical grounds. I am currently in the process of having a new animal health and welfare Bill drafted in line with the commitment in the programme for Government. Work on drafting this legislation is already under way in consultation with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. The Bill is a complex one but when drafting is concluded, it is my intention to publish the Bill. I have been considering the future of mink farming in the context of that process. I am conscious that mink farmers have a critical interest in the outcome. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has established a group within my Department to review all aspects of fur farming and I expect this review to be completed shortly.

In giving consideration to future of mink farming, I am conscious of the concern felt in some quarters about the ethics of raising mink for the manufacture of fur. I am also taking into account the fact that the mink farmers licensed by my Department have been engaged in this legitimate activity as their source of livelihood for many years and that the industry claims to be responsible for 80 jobs and generates export revenue from the sale of fur pelts.

The slaughtering of mink takes place on the farms and is subject to the provisions of European legislation at the time of slaughter. Inspections by my Department have confirmed that the methods used by Irish fur farms are in compliance with the aforementioned legislation. The Irish fur industry is fully aware of animal welfare requirements and it has displayed a willingness to comply with the requirements of my Department with regard to the keeping and slaughtering of mink.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I fully appreciate his point of view, but the difficulty the industry is facing at the moment is that the operators do not know whether they will have a future. They need to know one way or another because they wish to invest in their farms to build the industry up to the level they desire. If they invest in raw materials over the winter, when they are available, they could be left with those raw materials next year. I ask the Minister of State to consider this and to meet fur farming representatives in the next couple of weeks, if possible, to hear their views and give them a clear picture of what the future holds for the industry. It is important and it would be appreciated by the fur farming sector.

Photo of Shane McEnteeShane McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I know exactly where the Senator is coming from. I will say it directly to the senior Minister tomorrow and if he is not in a position to meet the industry representatives I will give a commitment to meet them on the Senator's behalf. I will go up to Donegal. I make no apologies; I will do it. It is crucial that we have that meeting and that the fur farmers get the guarantees they are looking for.