Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ceisteanna (42)

Jackie Cahill


42. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress made in providing extra lairage facilities at Cherbourg or surrounding area in preparation for spring 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49126/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

What progress has been made in providing extra lairage facilities at Cherbourg or in surrounding areas in preparation for the spring of 2020? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

Live exports are a critical part of Ireland's livestock industry. They play a significant role in stimulating price competition and in providing an alternative market outlet for farmers. My Department facilitates this trade, recognising its importance to the agrifood sector, while placing a strong emphasis at all times on the welfare of all animals being transported. In 2018, total live exports of cattle, including calves, increased by over 30% compared to 2017, to 246,000 head. This growth trend has continued into 2019, with live exports already totalling 266,000 up until the week ending 19 October. This is up from 221,000 for the same period in 2018, a 20% increase. This increase is in part due to my decision in 2017 to reduce the veterinary inspection fee payable on live exports of calves less than three months of age from €4.80 to €1.20. This has brought greater equity to the inspection fee regime. Since then, there has been continued growth in the export of calves, rising from 102,000 in 2017 to 159,000 in 2018. We have already surpassed this figure in 2019, with 194,000 calves having been exported in the year to 19 October.

The transport of calves poses some additional challenges associated with journey times and feeding requirements, which require the use of lairage facilities at Cherbourg. The Deputy will appreciate the development of additional lairage capacity in Cherbourg is a commercial matter for the export sector. However, officials from my Department met their French counterparts in the summer of 2019 in Cherbourg and, during these discussions, the French authorities indicated they would be willing to consider applications submitted for additional lairage capacity should they arise. Officials from my Department are in ongoing communication with Irish exporters on the need for co-operative management between each other to ensure the lairage capacity at Cherbourg is optimised. I have urged the live export sector to consider developing an additional lairage in Cherbourg or to engage with the owners of existing facilities to explore the potential for additional capacity. This has proved possible, as evidenced by the French authorities approving an increase of the holding capacity of the Qualivia lairage in Cherbourg earlier this year. My Department worked closely with the French authorities in this matter. This move provided for additional daily capacity for 400 calves.

The importance of the live exports cannot be overstated. Last spring we had a situation where at times there was a backlog in trying to get calves onto boats to get to Cherbourg due to the lack of lairage facilities on the Continent. We cannot let that situation happen in the spring of 2020. The changes in the density regulations for the lorries will add extra costs and reduce the numbers per lorry of calves that can be exported. That will bring about its own complications as well. It is essential the maximum number of calves are exported. Due to the favourable weather last spring, calves will come in a concentrated period from the middle of February to St. Patrick's Day. A huge percentage of our calves will be born in that month. We will need extra facilities. We see the protests outside the gates today and we see where beef prices are. This is one of the safety valves where we can put competition into the trade going forward. I know the impact on numbers for calf exports will not be seen for two years but it is essential the maximum number of calves are exported to the Continent this spring in an efficient and economic manner.

I am clearly committed to maximising the opportunities in the marketplace, particularly for live exports. The graph and the investments clearly show that and we have had some successes there. I am disappointed with the Deputy's contribution on the welfare standards. That is the only way we will safeguard that market access and I make no apology for increasing those measures beyond the statutory requirement. I have had a lot of engagement with stakeholders and I know stakeholders have been engaged on these matters in Cherbourg. We must ensure we have the highest standards. Fortunately we have an exporter's association and it is plugged in to the Department's way of thinking on these issues and that of other stakeholders. There has been a lot of engagement. I have met customers for our calves who are happy with the quality of our exports but who are equally concerned we would have the highest standards and that is what we are committed to.

With respect, I did not question the welfare standards. I only said they will raise extra complications with the amount of lorry space on the ships. That will create difficulties. As I have said, it will be a concentrated calving period this spring. We will have a month to avail of this opportunity to get calves to the Continent and we cannot have any blockages preventing the maximum number of calves getting there. The welfare of calves has to be paramount and if the buyers on the Continent are not happy with the condition of our calves, we would not see the increase in the percentages of exports we have seen. Thankfully, calves are arriving on the Continent in good nick as they should be. If they were not we would quickly see the numbers of calves being exported drop.

The provision of extra lairage is an essential safety valve that has to be availed of. We see commentary in the media about the value of these calves coming out of the dairy herd. If we do not have a proper live export there will be serious issues. Welfare standards have to be as high as possible, and we accept that, but we want to ensure a lack of lairage space in Cherbourg does not cause any backlog in the system this spring.

We are in agreement on these issues. We need to work together and unequivocally state we are committed to the highest standards. We must not just state it but we must reflect it in our actions and regulations. I am happy to report that from the engagement I have had with customers they are happy with the quality of the product they buy here, not just the calves but all the stock we export. That is a reflection on the farmers who produce that stock, whether it is calves for export or beef cattle for export. All those markets are important but they are grounded in our capacity to display our welfare credentials and that is enormously important.