Shortly after I joined the news desk of the Irish Farmers Journal, I found myself in Brussels at an informal briefing for agri journalists by European Commission officials.

I was very much the junior, as Matt Dempsey, our editor, was also along.

I asked a question regarding bluetongue. If you are under 30, you may have little idea about bluetongue, but in 2007 it was a hot topic.

A virus that affected animals but not people, it had travelled across Europe rather quickly, and had found its way across the UK.


The virus was transmitted by a midge and Ireland had adopted some physio-sanitary measures to prevent its arrival on our shores.

All imports of susceptible animals were required to undergo quarantine and testing for the virus.

I asked the EU scientists if Ireland could hope to keep the virus at bay.

They smiled benevolently and one replied it was an inevitability that mites carrying the virus would find its way across the narrow channel of water that separated us from Britain, just as they had hopped the English Channel.

It never happened.

The few cases that occurred were dealt with and the midge never flew the Irish Sea

With a high level of co-operation and co-ordination north and south, the few cases that occurred were dealt with and the midge never flew the Irish Sea.

It took a huge effort - vehicles entering the country were washed down during the period of peak risk, but it worked and was surely thus worth the effort.

Vaccination has reduced the problem of bluetongue, but our vigilance meant we never had to resort to a vaccine.

Canary grass

I was reminded of this last Saturday when I went to have a look at my beans. I was stunned to see they were riddled with canary grass.

Three years ago, I was hard set to recognise canary grass when it first appeared in a field of barley.

We rogued it and hoped that would be the end of it. It was only the beginning.

Following some bad infestations last year, we decided to make canary grass control our number one priority this year.

We based our entire spray programme around optimising the effectiveness of Axial - the product we chose to control the weed grass.

Timing of application, spray rate, tank mix, nozzle type, water volume and pressure were all selected to maximise efficiency. And it seemed to work. The barley is clean.

The beans are another matter. They are in a field that we never found as much as one head of canary grass, so we thought we’d be OK. And now this.

Sterile brome has been a problem for years now

Canary grass is the biggest problem in our fields, but is only third in the table of invasive weeds in Irish tillage fields.

Sterile brome has been a problem for years now, one we have thankfully avoided to date.

And this week, the Irish Farmers Journal delivered posters across the country to alert farmers to a further problem weed -blackgrass.

Blackgrass heads of varying sizes can be seen in more and more tillage fields around the country.

It is almost impossible to prevent the spread of these grasses once they hit our shores. Our own experience has seen canary grass affect our entire farm, with the tiny seeds likely carried around by the combine.

Balers, hedge-trimmers, farmyard manure, perhaps even bird food, could be the gateway for canary grass, or at least these are some of the theories I have become aware of so far.

Next steps

We are resigned to having to now spend thousands of euros every year for the foreseeable future controlling our new neighbour. It feels like failure, but I’m not sure if there’s much we could have done differently.

Certainly, as with so many things, prevention is much better than cure.

I should have been watching for the first signs of it - we walk our crops every year hand-rogueing wild oats, the original invader.

I should have sectioned off the early affected areas and zapped them with Roundup and kept the combine away from them.

That said, it’s hard to combat. By the time you see it clearly, it is seeding. In a year when crops break down, it is impossible to see and pull all plants.

The nightmare scenario is that fields become unsuitable for tillage - we would be forced to sow them down and ride out the invader.

But that would be like telling a dairy or beef farmer to plough up and plant crops.

Can we up our game

A variety of invasive threats exist in our globalised world and changing climate. Plants such as the rhododendron, decorative and desired, to the Japanese knotweed, unloved and unwanted.

Grey squirrels are taking over from our native red squirrels. Ash dieback, varroa mites are destroying bee colonies.

The question is, can Ireland take advantage of its island status to minimise the amount of invasive species? It's surely worth trying.

This little island, famously free of snakes, cannot rely on divine intervention to rid ourselves of our new challenges

It would need a massive and constant effort from our regulators to identify threats and establish protective protocols.

And such protocols would have to be in place across the island.

That was much easier when Ireland and the UK were both members of the EU, part of a common trading area with common rules and regulations.

Brexit has complicated both the politics and the practicalities of protecting our shores.

But the effort is surely justifiable. This little island, famously free of snakes, cannot rely on divine intervention to rid ourselves of our new challenges. We have to do this for ourselves.