An animal welfare charity has urged the Department of Agriculture to publish the outcome of an internal review into its response to significant animal welfare concerns raised by Dr Tamara Bronckaers.
Five years ago, the senior vet tried to warn senior civil servants about acts of animal suffering she witnessed at a local market, and about livestock moves being electronically deleted from a part of the traceability system.
She later received an unprecedented £1.25m pay out after taking the Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to court for the dismissal of her concerns.
The Ulster Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals (USPCA) said the case raises “many serious concerns”.
Chief executive Brendan Mullan said in a statement: “Firstly, it is unacceptable that animals were denied the basic right of food, water and shelter, as was the case in instances documented by Dr Bronckaers”. .
It’s after the senior vet received a tip-off about animal suffering at Ballymena Livestock Market, but when she reported it to her superior Dr Robert Huey, he told her that he personally knew its manager and also knew its chairman. Soon after, she was told to no longer continue with unannounced inspections.
USPCA’s Mr Mullan said this “is completely unacceptable and displays an uncomfortably close relationship where appropriate monitoring and enforcement is impossible”.
“Unannounced inspections are a necessity in order to ensure high standards of animal welfare, and of course, biosecurity,” he continued.
"The fact is that we have an establishment here that has clearly broken the law and enforcement action should have been taken – otherwise what sort of message does this send to perpetrators of animal neglect?
“The issue of biosecurity breaches regarding cattle movement is of grave concern, particularly when considering the recent green light given to an indiscriminate badger cull here in Northern Ireland.
"Time and time again we have emphasised that badgers do not cause TB in cattle and have highlighted the industry’s need for greater biosecurity to stop the spread of the disease – and now, here we have a case that shines a light on a complete lack of biosecurity and traceability.”
Mr Mullan called on DAERA to “be accountable for their failings and put measures in place to ensure history is not repeated”.
"The fact that the department was going to appeal the tribunal decision unfortunately begs the question as to how serious they are in addressing the issues raised,” he added.
"We believe that the outcome of DAERA’s internal review should be published and opened to external scrutiny in order to provide much-needed assurance to the public that they accept responsibility for their failings and are going to do something about it."
A spokesman for the DAERA said: “The Department unreservedly apologises to Dr Tamara Bronckaers for the hurt and distress caused.
“Following the outcome of the case in October 2021, the Department established an Internal Audit Review of Cattle Traceability System within Veterinary Animal Health Group. This review was focused on the robustness of current controls for animal traceability in livestock markets and abattoirs and also considered all of the issues raised by Dr Bronckaers. The review made a number of recommendations which the Department is implementing.
“With respect to traceability, Northern Ireland has a unique and world leading traceability system (APHIS) that enables the real time recording of bovine animal movements between farms, markets and abattoirs. The system does, and should, facilitate corrective amendments to be made to ensure accuracy of the notified and recorded movements held on APHIS.
“The Department takes extremely seriously all the matters which contributed to the outcome of the recent tribunal and will be progressing an internal review into them. This review is being undertaken with urgency and will be completed at pace.”
In a statement, Ballymena Livestock Market said: “We have zero tolerance when it comes to animal cruelty. Indeed, we go to great lengths to maintain the highest animal welfare standards.
“We regret if there were any instances where those standards were less than what we ourselves demand.
“The alleged incident occurred five years ago. Our animal welfare systems then were robust and in the intervening period, they have been further enhanced and strengthened."