Northern Ireland has seen a significant expansion of the poultry industry over the past decade.
But the rapid growth in farms and bird numbers has produced an unsustainable volume of poultry litter.
In order to obtain planning permission for poultry units in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to satisfy environmental regulations that the litter produced each year will be disposed of properly.
Animal waste produces harmful emissions such as ammonia, a gas which is already at extremely high levels across the island of Ireland.
Due to the already high levels of ammonia in Northern Ireland – over 95% of which is linked to agriculture – farmers have increasingly looked for other ways to dispose of the litter, such as the export of waste to farmers in the Republic.
Since 2015, the exporting of animal waste from Northern Ireland has become an increasingly common practice.
Agricultural planning applications in Northern Ireland need to provide evidence that farms in the Republic they are sending litter to have sufficient land available before getting approval – evidence which an internal investigation says was falsified in over 60% of cases.
There is a lack of knowledge about where the tonnes of harmful waste linked to the falsified export documents has actually ended up.
However, through information requests to Northern Ireland authorities some cases of dumping of poultry litter without authorisation have been identified.
The Department of Agriculture released information on 11 cases between 2015 and 2017 where unauthorised poultry heaps were found during inspections. In one case, the litter was dumped close to a stream, with the potential to pollute the water course.
The department refused to provide any details on the farms and there is no information to suggest that any of these incidents are linked to the cases involving alleged falsified export documents.
Geraint Ellis, chair of Environmental Planning at the School of Planning in Queen’s University Belfast, said “If the waste isn’t going to where it should, it must be going somewhere else – and then if it’s going somewhere else, what environmental damage is that doing?”