Ulster 'is open for business'
Foot and mouth: minister bidding for regional status
Agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew insisted this morning that Northern Ireland's countryside is still open for business, despite a ban on import of live animals and fresh meat following the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, she said tourists will still be able to go hillwalking or play golf, while the Enniskillen Show - the last agriculture show of the season - will go ahead as planned.
The minister was locked in discussions at Stormont today after moving swiftly to secure ports and prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland.
The minister said "soundings were hopeful" of securing regional status for Northern Ireland, excluding the province from the tight trade restrictions imposed on Great Britain following an outbreak at a farm in Surrey.
And she quickly moved to assuage farmers' fears about the disease-free status of Northern Ireland's herd, promising that all livestock imported since July 1 have now been tested and cleared of foot and mouth disease.
The Department of Agriculture here has banned the import of live cattle, sheep, goats and pigs through Ulster's ports, but animal movements through the island of Ireland have so far remained unaffected.
Fresh meat and unpasteurised milk product imports from Great Britain have been banned and passengers at Ulster's ports and airports are running a gauntlet of biosecurity measures eerily reminiscent of the full-scale foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, which devastated agriculture and tourism.
DARD has published biosecurity advice to farmers and the public, urging them to use foot baths and disinfectant mats to protect Ulster's livestock and the agriculture industry as a whole.
Ms Gildernew was this morning briefing the agriculture committee on the latest situation as well as moves to persuade EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel to grant regional status to Northern Ireland, excluding the province from the most stringent export measures. The Executive as a whole was also meeting to discuss the issue.
The minister said the Department already has a stringent traceability system in place and had moved quickly to tackle the threat, adding that she has been working closely with her southern counterpart Mary Coughlan to make sure that Ireland is able to maintain international trade links, even if it is forced to adopt more documentary procedures
"We are working closely to see that we stay out of that and maintain our trade links with the rest of Ireland.
"We will be able to step up to the mark in terms of documentary evidence," she said.
DARD has learned from the 2001 outbreak and operational plans were examined in January this year, Ms Gildernew said.
"There are valuable lessons here - there are animal diseases such as bluetongue and avian influenza that aren't far away," she said.
Vice chairman of the Assembly's agriculture committee, Tom Elliott, said that while it is a contagious strain of foot-and-mouth that has been diagnosed, things could well return quickly to normal if no more cases are detected.
"A lot will hinge on the next 10 days. If nothing else is found, things will get back to normal reasonably quickly," he said.