NI sheep shortfall brings fraud claim
By Philip Clarke
A MASSIVE shortfall in the number of sheep compared with the number of ewe premium claims on some farms in Northern Ireland has exposed the sector to accusations of fraud.
Discrepancies came to light after foot-and-mouth outbreaks resulted in the compulsory slaughter of over 200 flocks in three separate areas of the province. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) has cross-checked the number of animals culled and the subsidy claims lodged.
"The results show no significant problem in relation to cattle claims," said agriculture minister, Brid Rodgers. "But the picture is very different in relation to sheep."
In South Armagh, where F&M first struck in late February, of 93 farmers who had claimed annual premium, over half had fewer sheep than they needed to meet their claims, while 16 had no sheep at all. Of the 10,281 ewes claimed on, 3187 or 31% had gone missing.
The situation was a little better in Cushendall, Co Antrim, where there was just an 8% shortfall in the number of sheep on farm. But 48 farmers out of 106 who had claimed premium were short of sheep, including one who had no stock at all.
Mrs Rodgers said she was writing to all the farmers concerned to invite them to comment. "I hope some will be able to provide a satisfactory explanation within the terms of the scheme."
But for those who cant, strict penalties will apply. For example, someone who claimed on 40 sheep, but only had 36 during the retention period would only get 78% of the full premium on the 36 sheep. Anyone with more than a 20% discrepancy would lose the entire premium.
Some may also face prosecution if there is evidence of fraud. "I will be taking a close personal interest to ensure that all possible steps are taken," warned Mrs Rodgers.
The Ulster Farmers Union expressed its disappointment at the findings, but insisted that not all farmers should be tarred with the same brush. "There are almost 30,000 livestock farmers in Northern Ireland and this survey spotlights just a couple of hundred of them," said a spokesman.
But he was not surprised by the findings. "There was a lot of negotiating at the time of the cull, with some farmers wanting it to be done at a central location rather than on the farm. There seemed to be a hint that something was awry."
But he insisted that no one had been proven guilty of anything yet. Animal losses were quite normal during the retention period, and it was possible some sheep had been moved to outlying farms. *