Fermanagh Farms Linked To Environmental Scandal

Dozens of farms in Fermanagh have been linked to an environmental scandal over the use of fake planning evidence in applications for new farm animal sheds.

Councils across Northern Ireland and the Audit Office have launched a series of probes after investigative website The Detail discovered that more than 100 applications for pig, poultry and cattle sheds and biogas plants submitted false soil sample results in a bid to bypass environmental legislation.

The applications were submitted between 2015 and 2022. It is understood around three-quarters were approved.

Of the 108 applications, 29 were in the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area – the second-highest of any area.

Soil samples are an essential part of farm planning applications and are used to show farmers can deal with slurry produced on their farms without harming the environment.

Slurry run-off into streams and rivers has been blamed for toxic blue-green algal blooms which choked Lough Erne, Lough Neagh, the River Bann and other waterways over the summer.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) first raised the alarm last year, after it discovered dozens of soil samples had been submitted for years.

According to a subsequent Department for Infrastructure (DfI) memo, soil sample results “were either fabricated in their entirety or had been changed by a planning agent without the laboratory’s knowledge”.

But local councils and Stormont departments have been accused of being slow to act after it emerged a series of investigations has only recently been launched into the use of the documents.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office has now begun its own review into how councils and government departments are handling the issue.

And the PSNI confirmed members of its Economic Crime Unit “are currently reviewing a complaint into this matter”.

When asked what action it was taking, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council said it has carried out a probe and is “currently in the process of considering the most appropriate next steps in relation to the matter of potential fraud”.

The average chicken or pig shed generates hundreds of tonnes of manure every year, which is generally either spread on land as slurry or burned for fuel in a biogas plant.

Since 2015, farmers who want to build new livestock sheds have had to submit soil samples.

The samples need to show farmers’ fields can absorb animal waste spread as slurry and will not run off into streams and rivers.

Last year, an NIEA official spotted that fake soil samples were being submitted as part of planning applications.

An investigation later found 108 applications submitted between 2015 and 2022 had used “fabricated” samples to bypass environmental regulations and gain planning permission for new animal sheds and biogas units.

Although government departments have known about the scandal for over a year, no overarching investigation has been launched.

NIEA said the issue falls under planning fraud and it is not carrying out an investigation because that would be outside its remit.

“Any investigation into potential planning fraud would be a matter for the planning authorities .i.e. local councils,” a spokesman said.

All of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils – apart from Belfast and Ards and North Down – are affected by the scandal.

The Detail asked the nine councils about their investigations. Most confirmed they are looking at the cases in their area but could not comment further.

The Audit Office said it has launched a review of how the issue is being handled “by a number of government bodies”.

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said the scandal was “the most alarming and significant scandal to hit the agri-food industry to date”.

He questioned why no overarching investigation had been launched.

(Source – Impartial Reporter – Farming / Environment – Luke Buterly – The Detail – 24/11/2023)

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