Seanad debates

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

6:05 pm

Photo of Mary Ann O'BrienMary Ann O'Brien (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for attending. I want him to imagine that he is getting severe stomach pains and losing weight fast, and he stops eating and has no energy. The sun hurts his skin, he is losing co-ordination and he is struggling to breath. Now he is going blind and, worst of all, he cannot tell anybody or communicate how bad he is feeling. That is how a horse feels after it has eaten ragwort.

A horse need not eat much ragwort. Horses can eat a tiny amount and within a couple of days, as the Minister of State will be aware, it damages their liver. There is no way an expert or a veterinarian can tell whether horses have this condition.

We have had a nice summer and we are back after our break. I was luck as I got to visit Kerry, Roscommon, the west and Waterford. I have never seen such a summer of ragwort. If we were harvesting ragwort, or if we could do something with it to make money, we would be making a fortune.

I am here because I am passionate about the horse industry in Ireland, particularly the sport horse industry. Goffs bloodstock sales are on this evening. It is the biggest sale of the year. The thoroughbred racing industry is of significant importance. We are best in class globally at that industry.

Obviously, cows get affected by eating this noxious weed as well. I do not want to step on the toes of farmers living around me but there are some for whom it is merely a joke. They are not bothering to spray it or pull it. What is the Minister thinking of doing about this problem? Will he introduce legislation that will include a preventive measure that would really hurt those who are ignoring it and letting their land?

Photo of Shane McEnteeShane McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for tabling the motion. When I was asked this morning to take the Adjournment debate, I asked what was it about and they said, "Ragwort", and I was delighted to hear it. I am not saying this merely because Senator Mary Ann O'Brien is sitting here. During the summer, I was disgusted when driving up the Ashbourne bypass to see the amount of ragwort in the middle of the road.

I come from a farming background where one of the chores every summer was for three or four of us to be sent out to pull the ragwort. Sometimes it would come easy and sometimes it would cut the hands off you. After that, one had to go and see whether any yew trees had grown over the previous summer.

I am very much aware of the effect ragwort has on animals, especially when it is cut with a mill and left on the ground. I suppose if an animal is hungry enough, it will eat it. However, when it is cut, it sweetens, and if it is lying for a day or two and one does not pick it up out of the swath, one is in trouble.

People have a responsibility to pull ragwort or spray it just like thistles, and we have neglected this for a long time. It is up to local authorities as well. One is not squealing on anybody when he or she telephones to say there is ragwort and asks what the person is doing about it. There are named noxious weeds for which what has to be done is set out and people should be urged to do it. It destroys a field, it is ugly but, most important, as the Senator correctly stated, is what it does to an animal. I am delighted that the Senator brought the matter up. I would urge farmers in this regard because nowadays they have a responsibility to have the correct plants growing in their ground. I will give the Senator the Minister's exact response.

The Noxious Weeds Act 1936 provides for the control of the spread of six noxious weeds, namely, thistle, dock, common barberry, wild hop, oat plants and, the most commonly and the most frequently mentioned of the species in the Act, ragwort. Ragwort is a highly poisonous plant as what it contains can cause serious damage to the liver of farm animals. The only way to safeguard against loss from ragwort poisoning is to eradicate the weed, either by pulling, ploughing, cutting or chemical control.

Under the Act, it is an offence not to prevent the spread of these weeds. The owner, occupier, user or managers of lands on which these weeds are present are subject to the provisions of the Act, including a fine of up to ยค1,000 on conviction.

The Department seeks to enforce the provisions of the Act by the issuing of destruction notices in all instances where it becomes aware of the presence of such weeds. Some 35 such notices were issued in 2011 with a further 43 having been issued to date in 2012. These notices are issued as a result of inspections carried out by Department field officials or on the receipt of complaints made by the public. Follow-up action may be taken by officials with the landowner to ensure compliance with the destruction notices is effected and that the particular weed in question has been dealt with as stipulated.

Additionally - it is important that this point be emphasised - under the EU single farm payment scheme, farmers are obliged to keep their lands free from noxious weeds under the cross-compliance measures set down for farming practices. Failure to do so can result in the application of a reduction of their payment entitlement. While figures for the number of penalties for the current year under the scheme are not yet available, in the years 2009 through 2011, a total of 104 such reductions were applied to farmers for failing to take the appropriate measures to prevent the proliferation of the such weeds.

While the Act makes provision for taking prosecutions against offenders, this measure has not been resorted to in recent years. Modern farming has reached a level of specialisation and intensification which makes weed control a fundamental and automatic practice. Therefore, with the few exceptions I have mentioned, the problem of noxious weeds on farms has diminished in recent times. However, the prevalence of ragwort found along the margins of roadways and in locations such as derelict sites regrettably appears to have increased.

In this context, the Department continues to engage with all county and local authorities, together with the National Roads Authority, to address the issue of the presence of such weeds in public areas and on roadsides, and to ensure a consistent programme of treatment and safe disposal of such weeds on an ongoing basis. In this regard, officials in the Department have been in contact with each of the county and local authorities early this year, re-emphasising both the importance of early treatment and safe disposal in order to minimise the risk of spreading and the prevention of further spread of the weed.

In recent years the Department has undertaken a number of public information campaigns to raise awareness of the impact of such weeds and the importance of controlling their growth from the perspective of reducing their spread through the promotion of best practices. In addition to the farming sectors, these campaigns have also been aimed at promoting awareness of non-traditional land users such as land for development, etc.

Photo of Mary Ann O'BrienMary Ann O'Brien (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for the good, detailed answer. While it is comforting, I hope he would agree that everyone from a rural area with whom one speaks will say that this was the year of the ragwort. Each plant produces 50,000 to 200,000 seeds over a four to six week period from July to September. Particularly now that the flowers are dying down, I am conscious of the seeds.

I am glad he mentioned the local authorities but he barely mentioned the NRA. I sit on Kildare County Council's audit committee and, as far as I am aware, the county councils are not in charge of the motorways, the NRA is. The motorways, as the Minister of State will be aware, have become famous for the yellow flowers which, unfortunately, are not daffodils which grow in the spring. At present, there is a great deal of ragwort and the seeds are blowing over fields, even into good farms.

The Minister of State's answer was very conclusive. Are we going to be proactive? A total of 40 people were notified this year but these people need to be fined. Their single farm payment must be reduced or taken away. I dealt with ragwort on my farm and farmers know that they need to go out and pull it up or spray it. The farmer next door to me has a beautiful farm because he sprays it regularly. He says that he does not have the time to go out and pull it up but it can be done. In the context of Bord Bia's beautiful Origin Green initiative, which highlights our beautiful country, I urge the Minister to clamp down and be more proactive with punishment.

6:15 pm

Photo of Shane McEnteeShane McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The fact that the Senator has raised the matter is a start. I hope the matter will not be just left here but will be brought to the attention of the wider public. I do not doubt what the Senator is saying because I have been up and down the country this year and it is in a mess with ragwort. The NRA has a lot to answer for. It spends more time preventing businesses from setting up along the roads than doing what it is paid to do. It would suit it a lot better to do its job and I make no apologies for saying that.

From a farming point of view, the cutting of hedges is important. County councils notify people and are reluctant to fine them. If they are notified to do it, farmers will respond. If they are let away with it, they will get away with it. Everybody in the farming community knows that things are tight but if they are asked to do it, they will. The fact that the Senator has raised this issue is good. When I saw ragwort during the summer I was slow to have a go at somebody about it. I assure the Senator that I will bring the matter back to my Department and make it a priority.