Belfast Telegraph

RHI: Heat in sheds forced 'chicken catchers' to change shirts often, inquiry hears

By Mark Bain

The RHI Inquiry heard yesterday that emails between Moy Park officials suggest poultry farmers were overheating houses in a bid to maximise revenue through the failed scheme.

The correspondence revealed reports from "chicken catchers" employed by the company complaining about having to change their outfits four times a night when trying to do their job, such was the heat of the conditions they were working in.

Inquiry barrister Donal Lunny presented the evidence to Tom Forgrave, a major poultry farmer supplying Moy Park and ex-chair of the Ulster Farmers' Union's poultry committee, who was appearing as a witness for the first time.

"It seems to be the norm that when they (chicken catchers) arrive, the heating system is fully on - they are currently going through approximately four changes of tops a night," the email stated.

And a further email reported chicken houses with temperatures "as high as 28 to 29 degrees and the biomass is still on and the fans are not".

"It doesn't read well," Mr Forgrave answered, adding that he was "shocked" when he saw it.

"Poultry farmers have been tarred very heavily with pub talk that they've been heating empty sheds in order to maximise their returns from the RHI scheme," he told the inquiry.

"It's not justified, some of the accusations coming our direction."

In his witness statement, Mr Forgrave had said there was little or no opportunity for farmers to overuse heat, stating that Moy Park checks its farmers' heating levels.

But Mr Lunny asked if it was possible to create a lot of heat, but to ventilate sheds to allow it to escape.

Mr Forgrave said that industry would be able to do that, but he defended his own practice: "On our own farm we've put a lot of work into looking at what the birds need for their best welfare.

"At no point have I had boilers on when they shouldn't be on."

Mr Forgrave also took "some exception" to having been "singled out" in an internal Moy Park presentation as the only farmer in Northern Ireland who installed two biomass boilers heating one poultry shed.

He has 10 boilers across eight sheds - all on separate heating systems and qualifying for higher subsidy payments.

"I'm aware of at least two if not three other farms that did exactly the same, and other farms have since done that," he said.

He also told the inquiry that his decision to put two boilers in his large poultry sheds was based on several reasons, primarily to have a back-up in case one failed.

Mr Forgrave was also described in an internal e-mail by Moy Park's head of customer support David Mark in late-2015 as a "top class RHI farmer!!!!!!"

Mr Forgrave said the first time he saw the comment was when he was shown it by the inquiry last month.

"I'm quite shocked by his language. It's an awful assumption on his part, I think, to label me the way he has, it's a very personal, very outspoken claim - it's shocking," he said.

Mr Forgrave is among the 62% of the poultry businesses supplying Moy Park who are on the RHI scheme.

And the inquiry heard how an expansion plan by Moy Park effectively pushed producers into the flawed scheme.

The inquiry heard that between 2010 and 2018 the company aimed to increase its weekly target from four to six million birds.

Mr Forgrave agreed with Mr Lunny that some business decisions by Moy Park - for example by requiring indirect hot water heating - had driven poultry farmers into the RHI scheme.

David Mark and former Moy Park chief executive Janet McCollum are due to give evidence at the RHI inquiry next week.

Belfast Telegraph

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