Tensions were said to have "run very high" during a meeting this week between the chief vet Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) executive committee members.

During the meeting, which was to discuss the effects of bovine TB, the union threatened to withdraw its cooperation with the department's veterinary service, accusing it of "inaction" over the disease.

A statement from the union explained that on Wednesday evening (June 16) its executive committee met with Northern Ireland's chief veterinary officer and his team online.

"During the discussion, UFU members were very open about their dissatisfaction regarding the extent of DAERA’s inaction with TB," it read.

'TB inaction'

UFU president Victor Chestnutt said: “Feelings ran very high last night amongst our members as they got the opportunity to directly engage with DAERA’s chief vet Robert Huey.

"It’s always extremely difficult to listen to a farmer expressing their anguish about the level of distress the disease is causing them, affecting their mental health and creating financial implications that impact the entire family.

"To have our executive members on one meeting venting the same frustration caused by DAERA’s inaction of TB takes it to another level.

"Yet it’s only a snippet of what farmers across NI are still experiencing years after we were told a TB strategy was almost ready.

“The threat of removing a proportion of direct support for not TB testing is nothing short of a ‘choke chain’ around our members’ necks. During the earlier stages of the coronavirus pandemic, DAERA relaxed this warning and we demanded that going forward, this relaxation continues. DAERA have plenty of other tools in the box without threatening farmers' direct support which is vital to sustain their family farm businesses.

“Mr. Huey confirmed that the threat of reducing Basic Payment Scheme entitlements will be reviewed and assurances were given to improve communication with farmers after our executive made it clear that DAERA’s poor communication was creating extra stress.”

Breaking point

The UFU executive committee also objected to the word ‘compensation’, as the current recompense in Northern Ireland only represents stock value and not other expenses incurred as a result of a breadown. They asked the department to explore the system used in the Republic of Ireland, where farmers are also covered for loss of earnings during any major outbreak.

Chestnutt added: “In October, Mr. Huey is due to touch base with the executive again and should DAERA fall short of their commitments including a promise of wildlife intervention, that will be the end of farmer co-operation with their veterinary service. Our members have reached breaking point."

Representatives for the department reportedly told the union they were planning to hold a consultation over TB measures before the Stormont summer recess in July.