The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) is urging its members to be prepared for an “incursion” at any time, claiming that there is a “significant threat” of protests by activists on Northern Irish farms during the summer.

Activist incursions, the union said, refer to unauthorised entry by individuals or groups onto private farmland with the aim of protesting, documenting or disrupting agricultural practices.

UFU policy officer David McClure said incursions on Northern Irish farms have historically take place during the summer months.

Following stakeholder engagement with farming unions in the UK in recent weeks, McClure said it is fair to say that a “significant threat of such events currently exists”.

“Therefore, our members must keep at the forefront of their minds, the possibility of an incursion occurring at any time. Such events cause great distress and concern for all farmers,” he said.

‘The edge of legality’

McClure said activist groups often operate on the “edge of legality”, and use tactics designed to garner public sympathy and media attention, which then complicates the legal response.

“From previous experience, typically these extremists will survey potential targets for weeks or months in advance of an incursion. Once they have gathered enough information, they arrange an incursion,” he said.

“Alternatively, it is possible that activists will visit a site during the cover of darkness and position a surveillance camera which is collected at a later date.

“Farmers should make conscious observations as to the possibility of any such cameras being on their premises.”

Activists often utilise social media platforms to reach a wide audience and secure funding for their initiatives, McClure explained.

“This allows them to circumvent traditional media channels and broadcast their activities in real-time to a global audience.”

McClure has advised farmers to make sure their farm is in order, as it is “impossible to defend the indefensible” and farmers need to ensure they are complying with legal requirements and assurance scheme standards at all times.

Being prepared

“During unexpected visits, activists may choose to film instances of sick or injured animals and deceased livestock, as this type of content tends to evoke strong emotions,” McClure said.

“It is important for farmers to carefully consider how the visual representation of any sick or injured animals on their property may be perceived if captured on camera.

“Sick animals should be isolated in a clean and comfortable hospital pen. In the case of deceased animals, it is recommended to promptly move them to a secure storage area until they can be properly disposed of.”

Additionally, McClure said it is advisable to use a spray marker to clearly label fallen stock before placing them in the designated storage area.

Marking the animals eliminates the possibility of activists falsely claiming that the deceased animal was neglected on the property, he said.

Issues concerning biosecurity risks and breaches of privacy arise when an incursion occurs, McClure said, so it is recommended that each farmer assesses their current security measures and ensures that they adequately meet their requirements.

“This may include ensuring that CCTV systems are operational and have adequate storage capacity for footage,” he said.

“Visible signage should also be utilised, although it may not deter protestors, it can aid in their prompt removal from the premises with the assistance of the PSNI.”

Security measures

Farmers are encouraged to lock buildings and remove keys at night, because if forcible entry has been used by the activists to gain access, prosecution will be more easily achieved.

“Where protestors have entered your property and are intentionally preventing you from carrying out your daily routine of feeding and caring for animals, this trespass can be elevated to aggravated trespass which is a criminal offence,” McClure said.

“In these instances, police officers can order individuals to leave the premises and if they refuse or return, this is an additional offence.

“If you do come across these extremists on your farm, calmly and politely ask them to leave before calling the police.

“You should consider gathering your own photo or video evidence of car registrations, and any damage caused,” he added explaining that this will be useful if farmers wish to attempt to prosecute.

“It would be prudent to check the site for hidden cameras. Do not permit any intruders to take any livestock with them when leaving the site.

“In the absence of permission, any livestock removed can be treated as theft and will warrant further prosecution.”