Irish ministry buys 'mystery deaths' farm

Click to follow
The Irish Republic's government has taken the unusual step of buying one of the Co Limerick farms at the centre of an investigation of unexplained cattle deaths and human illness.

A reported price of more than Irpounds 500,000 is to be paid for the 85-acre Askeaton farm owned by Justin and Suzanne Ryan on the River Shannon.

A neighbouring farm owned by Liam Somers is to be leased by the Irish authorities, who will now begin studies assisted by overseas experts into possible causes of 94 cattle deaths since 1988 on the Ryan farm and 49 on the Somers' holding.

Local vets linked the cattle deaths with immune-system failures, amid fears of toxic emissions from local industry which includes a major alumina plant, a large coal-fired power station and pharmaceutical operations. The main industrial plants deny emitting waste sufficiently toxic to kill cattle.

The possibility that industrial emissions may be responsible was highlighted by a striking parallel between the Limerick cases and others studied by Dr Fiona Williams and Dundee scientists, reported in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Dr Williams cited a "dramatic increase" in twin births among dairy cattle following the opening of chemical waste incinerators releasing polychlorinated hydrocarbons. Some of these have oestrogenic properties, imitating the effects of fertility drugs. Several Limerick farms have reported sharp rises in cattle twin births alongside birth defects, such as no eyes.

Experts in European animal health policy say that for the state to purchase a farm is extremely rare, and suggests serious concern at the impact the incidents could have on Irish exports. Ireland's huge agribusiness sector strongly emphasises the country's unspoilt environment in promoting food products.

Mr Ryan told the Independent last weekend he was sad to be leaving land farmed by his family for 200 years, but was relieved the negotiations were over. "We had no choice," he said. "What this [sale] does is give us the means to get a new place and continue farming as before."

But he said he was concerned at official indications that an interim report on the cattle deaths would not include existing test results on local chlorine levels. He feared findings that might embarrass local industry could be covered up.

Agriculture minister Ivan Yates in recent weeks vehemently rejected suggestions of a cover-up, saying he had responded immediately to the Limerick concerns.

Mr Yates said the Askeaton studies, expected to last until 1997, would involve wide-ranging tests of cattle, the removal of some animals for monitoring at a state farm, and placement of others from outside the area on the affected farms.