Ploughing Championship - Bluetongue casts shadow over contest

AT NOON today President Mary McAleese will open the National Ploughing Championships, a three-day festival of farming that has become the biggest outdoor event in Ireland.

She will be joined by at least two members of the cabinet — local TD and Finance Minister Brian Cowen and Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan — as well as Michelle Gildernew, the North’s Farm Minister.

The Taoiseach is scheduled to visit later in the week if his Mahon Tribunal commitments allow.

More than 150,000 people are expected to visit the championships outside Tullamore in Co Offaly, and though agriculture is no longer the cornerstone of our economy or society it is still a huge part of Irish business life and of our social heritage.

The fact that the country’s 130,000 farmers are on a bluetongue alert — an insect-borne virus deadly to sheep but without implications for human health — will cast a long shadow over the event.

The virus arrived in England nearly two weeks ago via insects carried on winds from the Continent.

Experts warn that in the right weather conditions it could spread across Britain within days.

Beef and lamb producers will also be concerned that a sixth case of foot and mouth has been confirmed in England, this time on a farm in Surrey.

If bluetongue reaches Irish farms it will devastate cattle and sheep populations and end live exports immediately. The implications for an economy already enduring a bad dose of the jitters don’t bear thinking about.

The tens of thousands of families involved in the live export business can only look on such a prospect with great anxiety and pray for the frosts that would kill off the insects carrying the virus.

Though there is as yet no absolute scientific confirmation, there is very strong evidence that climate change plays a significant part in the northward advance of the wind-borne insects that spread the virus. As temperatures rise in northern Europe so do the instances of tropical diseases usually unheard of there.

Undoubtedly the flat earthers, who despite everything still deny climate change, will find another reason for tropical insects moving northwards. However, the rest of us must start to take notice and change our habits in meaningful rather than token ways to try to minimise our impact on climate change. We need to do much, much more than use trendy little light bulbs and turn off the standby light on the TV.

We can also recognise the great irony that one of the manifestations of global warming threatens an industry that contributes to that destructive process. There are few greater causes of global warming than the production of beef for human consumption.

Though bluetongue, bird flu or whichever climate change nightmare is current might not reach Ireland immediately it is foolish to hope we will remain unaffected and that the diseases or viruses will pass us by.

However, such is the resilience of the farming community that, despite what has been a very challenging period for the sector, businesses offering farmers investment opportunities in foreign properties will be prominent among the 850 exhibitors on the 60-acre site.

Changing circumstances may not see the queues that formed at earlier events, but it is reassuring to know that Ireland’s farmers are looking to the future with a sense of optimism.

So enviable is the expertise built up in the sector that the Canadian province of Manitoba will be represented in Tullamore in an effort to persuade Irish farmers to sell up and cross the Atlantic, to where land is cheap and overheads significantly lower. Maybe it is time to consider all of the long-term implications of losing such hard-won expertise in food production.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

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