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Will Minister Muir stick to evidence and science?

Many of us will have been concerned to see the new Agriculture Minister, Andrew Muir meeting, on his first official day in office, with animal rights groups before meeting with the likes of the Ulster Farmer Union. The Minister's actions and comments have sounded alarm bells to the country sports and farming communities. However, is the Minister starting to distinguish his Party’s position from his Ministerial role now that he has had time to get his head around the challenges facing his department and rural communities?

During questions to the DAERA Minister on 19 February 2024, Claire Sugden MLA asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to state his plans to tackle the spread of Bovine TB.

In response, the Minister said:

"I am very conscious and aware of the issue of Bovine TB. I was briefed on the issue on the Saturday on which I took office. There are challenges around that issue, because it is not sustainable for farms, and it is not financially sustainable for the Department. I am also aware that, when TB arrives on a farm — let us be clear that 10% of the herd has currently or previously been affected and associated with it — it causes distress and apprehension. Over time, we need to get a strategy in place that gives a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for the farms and businesses that are affected.”

The Minister is committed to working with officials and stakeholders in the time ahead to look at situation in the rest of the UK and Ireland to see how they have approached the issue, stating the current situation is not sustainable.

In Ms Sugden’s supplementary question to the Minister, she asked if he planned to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and legislate for a badger cull in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, the Minister said:

“I am very aware of the issues and of the associated legal challenges that arose. One element of Bovine TB is a wildlife strategy, and we have to consider that. Let us engage. Let us see whether we can find a way forward. I am aware of my party's policy. People will not be surprised by it. In the time ahead, as Minister, I will be guided by evidence and science. You cannot really go wrong if you are guided by those.”

While the evidence supports a combination of both control and vaccination of wildlife as part of a Bovine TB eradication strategy, as seen in the UK and Republic of Ireland, the question is, will the new Minister follow science and evidence? Will he make the tough decisions? Will he bow to Alliance Party policy or, like others, simply kick the can down the road.

While it is too early to tell, with three years left in this mandate and Bovine TB numbers continuing to rise, this could be a defining moment for the Minister and his Party who may have to rethink how their urban policies fit into the countryside. Will they oppress and disenfranchise rural communities like Labour have just done with their announcement to ban hunting in its entirety? Should it be the latter, it would be the height of intolerance that rural people are told how they should live their lives by people who often know little about what happens in rural areas, likely leading to demonstrations and unrest like we have just seen in Wales.

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