A group representing three Northern Ireland farming bodies has warned against recommencing on-farm inspections on June 8.

Northern Ireland Farm Groups - an umbrella body which includes the Northern Ireland branch of the National Beef Association, Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association and Farmers For Action - said it had written to the chairman, chief executive and board of the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) on their intention to resume on-farm inspections on June 8.

The group said it had "grave concern" over the risk restarting face-to-face inspections would bring to farmers.

Farm Quality Assurance Scheme inspections were halted in Northern Ireland on March 20 as the Covid-19 situation became more serious. However, on Tuesday (May 26), it was announced the inspections would recommence from June 8 with several changes.

A spokesman for NI Farm Groups said: "We understand that the FQAS Brand protects the integrity of our meat.

"We also understand that FQAS is a scheme in which members voluntarily participate and that part of the scheme involves farm visits to inspect premises and paperwork.

However, we must point out to LMC that this is not an essential service as we see with loads of imported beef to Northern Ireland and the UK, undermining FQAS founding principles of clarification of farm origin and its bonus for participants

The group said many farmers were still apprehensive about the virus.

"NI Farm Groups will not be happy with FQAS inspections on-farm at the very least until Covid-19 has been brought under control - and certainly not until after the children go back to school full-time.

"The risks on the majority of farms are far, far too great given the age range of family and staff and well-known health problems that families can have leaving them vulnerable to Covid-19.

"Within NI Farm Groups we are aware that many of our members are uncomfortable with on-farm visits at this time. Presently only essential services such as meal deliveries and vets are admitted to the farmyard.

"In addition, livestock are outdoors and silage-making, slurry spreading etc is ongoing. Additional mental stress and risk must dictate that LMC do not commence on-farm inspections on June 8.

"It must also be noted that all relevant farm organisations were not consulted on this matter. Therefore, NI Farm Groups have urgently requested an online meeting within the next few days and well ahead of June 8."

'Keep your distance'

The Ulster Farmers’ Union did not comment on whether it welcomed the return of farm inspections.

However, in a statement, UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt said he would like to remind members and anyone visiting or working on farms, of the importance of physically distancing from others.

Chestnutt said: “Covid-19 restrictions may have been softened slightly over the past number of weeks, but it is crucial that we continue to maintain the social distancing advice and stay 2m apart.

This is vital on farms now more than ever as a number of essential inspections are recommencing, maintenance work takes place and contractors are at work across Northern Ireland with silage season well underway.

“We have come so far since the beginning of this pandemic, but we are not out of the woods just yet. We cannot afford to become relaxed and dismiss the social distancing advice which would undo all the fantastic work of our NHS health workers, essential key workers and those who stayed at home to help reduce the spread of the virus.

"We are making progress steadily and continuing to physically distance from others will ensure we keep moving in the right direction in the battle against Covid-19.

"Staying apart by at least 2m is a measure that remains very much in place to keep all parties safe and we must uphold it.

"I urge all our members and everyone in the farming community to persist in being extra careful when carrying out day-to-day farming tasks, and always bear in mind that everyone you work with on farms have loved ones they need to protect.”