Hanrahan -v- Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, [2009] IEHC 304 (2009)

Docket Number:2006 1811 P
Party Name:Hanrahan, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Judge:McMahon J.





JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice McMahon delivered on the 24th day of June, 2009


Only another herd owner can fully appreciate the traumatic effect that John Hanrahan and his family felt when he had 355 cattle from this dairy herd seized by officials of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over the two day period, the 15th/16th March, 2006. Not surprisingly, the seizure was accompanied by a share of upset and drama, and although many animals were seized, the officials did not succeed in taking the whole herd as was their intention when they arrived at Mr. Hanrahan's farm. Eventually some 130 animals had to be left behind.

Mr. Hanrahan's dairy herd was comprised of mature cows, calves, weanlings, yearlings and heifers. The management of this herd involved cows calving twice a year, in the spring and the autumn. The best of these calves were kept as replacements for cattle that were culled or sold on during the year, so that constant replacements were bred on the farm. Surplus calves were sold on. Sales might also become necessary when feed was scarce. Milk yields rose around calving time as nature ensured that lactating cows increased their supply to feed the newly born calves. The plaintiff was very proud of his herd as he had taken great care when he had to restock the farm after a disaster in the 1980s. He had selected the Holstein breed as the most suitable for his operation as such cattle were bred to give a high milk yield, and did not put "the condition on their backs". This last remark was intended to distinguish this breed from other breeds which were more suitable as beef animals. The predictability of this herd cycle was important to maintain the business operation. It meant that milk yields would be high from spring until autumn when the grass was growing at its strongest. It also meant, as in all farms, that fodder was at its scarcest during the winter and early spring periods and provision had to be made for fodder during this period by way of silage, hay and supplements. The weather dictated the length of the growing season and how long the animals could be left out for grazing. To cater for his herd of almost 500 animals, Mr. Hanrahan had to rent land also, and this he did from various landowners close to the family farm.

Mr. Hanrahan achieved prominence, not only as a farmer but as a litigant in the 1980s when he successfully sued the chemical manufacturers Merck, Sharp and Dohme for damage to his animals and to his person for negligence/nuisance in the wrongful discharge of noxious fumes from its factory adjoining Mr. Hanrahan's farm near Clonmel in County Tipperary. (see Hanrahan v. Merck, Sharp and Dohme (Ireland) Limited [1988] I.L.R.M. 629). This eventual legal success in the Supreme Court, however, did not resolve all of Mr. Hanrahan's problems. By reason of the consequences of the chemical pollution, Mr. Hanrahan's milk quota was suspended for many years, and he commenced proceedings against the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ("the Department") and others claiming 1.4m in damages. The exact nature of this claim was not opened to the Court, nor indeed was it necessary to do so, but its existence and continuation is relevant background, and for that reason it must be noted by this Court. Mr. Hanrahan claimed that the failure by the defendants in that case to pay monies owed to him, caused serious cash flow problems for him, to such an extent that in late 2005, and early 2006, he had problems with feed and fodder for the herd. He complained bitterly to the local officers of the Department from the end of 2005 through the Spring of 2006 about his financial problems and the effect it was having on his ability to feed the herd. Impatient with the pace of the legal process he also sought to publicise and politicise his difficulties in the hope that such extra legal pressure might expedite a solution to what he then claimed were increasing herd problems. He enlisted the aid of his MEP and other politicians and wrote directly to the Minister for Agriculture and Food and to the Taoiseach at the time.

As an example of his forceful urgings in this context one may quote what he wrote to the Taoiseach by letter dated 12th December, 2005:-

Dear Taoiseach,

Please find enclosed documentation already sent to the Minister for Agriculture, Minister for Justice, and your department to Mr. Reddy on 18th November, 2005.

We are asking you now in the interest of fairness and justice to intervene and bring this matter to finality.

You will see from Dr. Butler's reports attached to a letter to Mary Coughlan, Minister for Agriculture dated 9th December and delivered by hand on 12th December just how serious the animal welfare on the farm is at this moment.

You will recall receiving documents by hand from Liam Lynch while you were on holiday in Kerry, we are at a loss to know why no action was taken in spite of the fact that you asked the Minister to deal with it.

We regret having to trouble you once again but this cannot go on any longer because it is now causing an animal welfare problem as well as a human welfare problem. We urge you to deal with it immediately before matters go any further.

Again in his letter to the Minister dated 9th December, 2005 he stated:-

"I am surprised to have had no response from you to my letter of 18 November and I understand from the attached letter I received from Kathy Sinnott [MEP for Munster] that you have declined to meet either her or myself or my advisors to discuss the situation.

I attach also copies of letters from Dr. Tom Butler, Farm Business Advisers, dated 23 May 2005 and 22 November 2005 on the stock condition and animal feed situation on the farm.

It will be clear that unless you are prepared to take some action along the lines suggested in Dr. Butler's letters, I will have no alternative but to slaughter the worst affected of the animals to avert a serious animal welfare problem.

Accordingly, I am forced to seek the assistance of your Department in carrying out this slaughter and to ask for your written permission to bury the animals here on the farm."

The plaintiff's agricultural and nutritional advisor was Dr. TM Butler of TBA Laboratories Limited. Dr. Butler was a very well qualified expert on animal nutrition and wrote two reports on John Hanrahan's farm operation, one on 23rd May, 2005 expressing first, serious concern because of the lack of funds to purchase forage and concentrates and the second, in November 2005 warning: "without winter forage supplies, you are facing a major crisis that has serious financial and welfare implications".

Dr. Butler's conclusions in these matters were given in good faith and in making his assessments he was relying on the information provided to him by Mr. Hanrahan as to what rented land was available to him. When Dr. Butler gave evidence it was clear to me that he was happy to confirm his views on the basis of the information available to him. In a further report on 14th February, 2006, concerned with herd book condition and feed requirements, Dr. Butler found that out of the 487 animals on the farm, only about 100 could be classed as poor or poor to moderate. That was just a month before the seizure on the 15th/16th March and given the scarcity of feed and nutrients at that time it is difficult not to conclude that the vast majority of the animals were, in view of the other evidence, cause for serious concern when they were seized.

Mr. Hanrahan had earlier written a long letter to the Minister on 18th November, 2005 setting out the history of his problems since 1981 with the Department which had an appendix of some 25 pages.

In a phone message to Mr. Toby Moran (a veterinary officer in the local office of the Department) he accused the Department officials of "watching my animals suffer. I am holding you responsible."

Subjected to this campaign from Mr. Hanrahan, it is not surprising that the Minister requested an investigation, and local officers of the Department were sent to inspect the condition of the plaintiff's herd on 21st December, 2005. The visit to the farm, however, disclosed no welfare problems and caused Mr. Toby Moran to say in evidence:-

"I was very pleased with the condition of the animals. I had no problem whatsoever. There was about 80 round bales of silage on the premises and quite a lot of bag meal up in the loft." He confirmed that he had written a report to that effect.

It was not until early February 2006, however, that the situation on Mr. Hanrahan's farm caused greater concern. An animal went down with suspected BSE. It proved to be a false alarm, but the animal was put down and restrictions were put on the movement of animals on the farm for approximately six days. Officers from the Department visited the farm on several occasions between this incident and the eventual decision to seize the herd on the 15th March, 2006. These visits became increasingly difficult over that period as Mr. Hanrahan became defensive and took offence with one officer in particular, that is, Mr. John O'Gorman. Ambrose Hanrahan, the plaintiff's son who was deeply involved with managing the animal stock, alleged that Mr. O'Gorman was abusive and aggressive on one occasion when he came to the farm. Thereafter, Mr. Hanrahan resented Mr. O'Gorman coming onto the land and objected anytime he appeared for an inspection. Whether Ambrose Hanrahan's allegations are true or not, the fact was that John Hanrahan believed them and resented Mr. O'Gorman visiting the farm from that time on.

Postponing a more detailed description of these official visits, it is sufficient to note at this juncture that increasingly over this period, the authorised officers became concerned with the welfare of the animals, being of the view that many of them had become emaciated and thin and...

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