It was a Saturday morning in December. Not just any Saturday morning, Saturday 8 December.

We were planning a family day, to do some Christmas shopping, and bring the lads, who were all under 10, to see the Christmas lights in Wexford.

I was shattered and was labouring through breakfast around quarter past nine.

I was still tired from the day before, more headwrecked than physically tired. We had genotype-tested hundreds of sheep - ewes, lambs, rams and all.

Scrapie had been detected in my flock some months earlier and this was the big day of genotyping the entire flock.

Being December, we had all the animals indoors, with pens set up to sample and tag the sheep in batches.

Every sheep received a scrapie tag to go along with the standard identification tag.

There were, I think, seven Department staff present and they were considerate and understanding on the day, as they were the whole way through the entire saga.

Head melted

But I won’t lie, my head was melted. I hadn’t slept well - the whole thing was quite stressful.

Then, there was a knock on the door. My wife answered, I wasn't even dressed. Sandra said there was a man to see me. I threw on some trousers and went to the door.

The man introduced himself as Eamonn Bowe. He apologised for coming to see me on a Saturday, but I was slated for a full basic payment cross-compliance inspection and it needed to take place.

He said he could come back in 48 hours for some of it, but there were unannounced parts of the inspection which needed to take place straightaway.

Reader, I won't lie, my heart sank. I couldn't believe this was happening, it felt like the world was spinning.

I invited Eamonn to come in and have a cup of tea and we could work through the paperwork first.

“We'll do as much as we can today,” I said. "I won’t be here early next week - I work off-farm.”

I had started in the Irish Farmers Journal only a couple of months earlier. Because of the scrapie situation, I actually had the paperwork up to date.

We looked at the register, the basic payment application and the other bits and pieces of required paperwork. Then we headed to the yard and looked at the medicine cabinet and pesticide store.

Tag checks

We then headed for the sheep and did some tag checks. After that, we headed to the fields for a visual inspection of eligible areas. That all took until about half two that Saturday.

Eamonn headed home and said he could do what was left himself the next day. He indicated that the inspection had gone OK. I came home, smiled at my wife and kids and pretended I was OK. I wasn’t, I was exhausted and anxious.

Was it me?

I was wondering had I done something wrong? Was there a net tightening around me?

I had already been struggling with the consequences of being a scrapie farm. I was in the second wave of the scrapie programme. Initially when it was detected in your flock, all your sheep were taken away and slaughtered. You received a cheque, you stayed out of sheep for two years and then you restocked if you wanted (very few did).

In the second stage of scrapie, all the animals were genotyped, with only the animals that were scrapie-susceptible removed. The rest were left behind, but subject to a rather complicated regime. At least, I found it very complicated anyway; it got the better of me.

I found myself needing counselling. In the end, after a further year of self-inflicted torture, I sold all my sheep.

We went on our Christmas shopping on the Sunday. I got the all-clear from the Department a little later. But I'll never forget how that 8 December arrival felt, how targeted and vulnerable I felt. I felt guilt even though I don't think I’d done anything wrong. I was just unlucky my name came up when it did.

For people who don’t farm, the best comparison I can give for when an inspector arrives on your farm is when you notice a squad car behind you. And suddenly you become slightly paranoid, your head full of worrying questions.

Have I been speeding? Is my car in tax? Is the NCT up to date? When did I last have a drink? You mightn’t have had a drink for a week, but you’ll ask yourself.

Good people helped me through a bad situation

Let's make no mistake about it, Eamonn Bowe was and is a gentleman. The staff in the district veterinary office I dealt with through the scrapie saga couldn't have been more decent with me.

The vet in charge - Frank Ennett - is a decent and honourable man, to whom I will always be grateful for his humanity.

And I'm not a stupid person, I think. But I struggled. There were times that I spent all night trying to reconcile the paperwork around the sheep, to ensure I knew the Department and scrapie tag of each sheep.

Because sheep have a habit of losing tags, it was almost impossible to keep it straight. I lost perspective.

There was one day in particular that I remember. It was a Friday afternoon, the Friday before August bank holiday weekend. I had seen the sheep in the morning, then done some other work.

Mid-afternoon, I walked through the sheep and discovered one batch of 100 ewes and their lambs had been worried.

They had been pressed up against an electric fence that fenced off a drain that was 10ft deep, it was visibly damaged and the sheep were upset. When I looked down, there were two ewes in the drain, who had fallen in and drowned.

There was only a few inches of water, but they fell in on their backs. Anyone who knows sheep knows they find ever more novel ways of dying.

The sheep had been content and grazing at 8.30 in the morning. Now, six hours later, two were dead. Not only were they dead, but between the two sheep, not a single ear was left.

We have a lot of foxes in the bog beside the field in question. The first thing they will do is take a sheep’s ears. With no ear, not a single tag was left.


I had no idea who the sheep were, but I had to bring those two sheep to the knackery and I had to identify them before I did so, as I could only move animals off the farm, even to the knackery, by permit.

I contacted the Department of Agriculture and told them of my problem. They agreed that once I had identified the tag numbers of the two sheep by 4.30pm, they would fax the permit to the knackery, which luckily is less than 10 miles from home.

I got my eight-year-old, gathered the 100-plus sheep in a pen in the corner of the field and proceeded to read every tag, with my son ticking them off the list in my ever-present notebook, so that we could identify the deceased by the process of elimination.

I still remember one of the Department vets being a bit short with me when I arrived at the knackery with my little car trailer and the two dead sheep, still a little out of breath.

He was not happy that I was arriving in at the last minute on the bank holiday Friday. It took everything in my power not to scream at him whether he would prefer if I had brought the two sheep, decomposed, the following Tuesday when they would reopen.

That was the moment I realised I was done - I couldn't keep sheep anymore. No one is to blame, unless perhaps the system, so maybe whoever devised the system can claim some credit. You'd need to be a better farmer than I am to be off-farm half the time and run a sheep flock.

Protocol is vital

That's why I am convinced the protocol for inspections that has been agreed between Wexford IFA and Wexford County Council inspections is so important. I’ve found covering that issue has triggered the memories I’ve shared above.

I only did so to give an insight as to how stressed and anxious farmers can become over inspections.

We now have so many different competent bodies who have the right to come on to our farms to inspect us - Inland Fisheries, local authorities and the Department of Agriculture.

Farmers can't complain about this, we are custodians of the land and must accept that the agencies of the State are tasked with making sure that we are carrying out our responsibilities in that regard to a high standard.

However, the attitude of inspectors to farmers is crucial, just as the attitude of farmers to inspectors is fundamental to a decent working relationship.

And this charter provides clear guidelines as to the standards of behaviour expected on both sides. It's hugely helpful and I commend Wexford County Council for agreeing to this, the first local authority in the country to do such a thing.

I commend the IFA in Wexford for their initiative, particularly chair Jer O’Mahony and regional executive Jackie Whelan Fagan. I believe it will help straightaway to minimise the hotspots where farmers and inspectors fall out.

I know some people are concerned that this protocol might somehow allow farmers to duck and dive and evade detection where they are in breach of regulations. We can knock that one on the head straight away.

The following sentence is in italics in the fairly short document that describes the protocol: "Excluded from this (prior notification of an inspection) is where a pollution incident has been reported/detected and where an inspector is required to gain immediate access."

That's clear as crystal and covers such eventualities as where water has been contaminated or slurry is spread during the closed period or visible signs of seepage from a yard are noticed.

However, in normal circumstances, the inspector is required to give the farmer 24 to 48 hours notice of an inspection.

Even more crucially, the farmer has the right to request "flexibility" as to the time of the inspection, with family holidays and family bereavements given as examples of where this might be sought.

It might seem extraordinary, but I hear stories where inspections have gone ahead even where a bereavement has occurred. I don't know if they are rural myths or stack up, but, from now on, in Co Wexford at least, that won't be happening.

Should the farmer be unavailable, they are allowed to nominate someone to represent them during the inspection. There are further details agreed as to what happens should either side be delayed on the date of the inspection.

Within these is a balance, as the farmer is expected to show respect to the inspector, just as they are entitled to receive respect in return.

When the inspector arrives, they must present their identification, and documentation indicating the purpose of the inspection. Again, it's all common sense that will ease the mind of the farmer and lower the temperature of the engagement.

Cooling off

Should the farmer refuse to allow the inspector to proceed, a cooling-off period is now in place. This is a 10- or 15-minute spell where the farmer can come to terms with the necessity to co-operate.

This might be time enough to call a neighbour or farm organisation representative for wise counsel and perhaps assistance. Should they continue to refuse access, they will be advised of the seriousness of that decision and the possibility that the county council official will cross-report the matter to the Department of Agriculture, with potential cross-compliance consequences.

When the inspection is complete, the farmer is to receive a "preliminary verbal report", indicating how things had gone. Furthermore, the farmer has the right to comment in return and these comments will be carried in the written inspection report made by the inspector. Again, all very commonsense, giving a suspicious or nervous farmer a right of reply.

There are also important references to agreed appeal procedures, but the real breakthrough is the mutual understanding that inspections are fraught procedures and an agreement that institutionalised mutual respect goes a long way to averting negative experiences.

It's a good news story, one I hope is repeated across the country.

La Féile Pádraig sona daoibh!