Farmers in Northern Ireland were preparing to resume exports of meat and livestock last night after EU veterinary experts lifted foot-and-mouth restrictions that had been in place for nearly four months.
The decision was met with jubilation in the province's farming community. It now faces the task of winning back trade worth more than £200m before the outbreak.
A meeting of the EU Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels lifted the export ban after a six-week quarantine was completed since the last case in Ulster on 22 April.
Exports of lamb, dairy products, pork and live pigs will resume once the decision is formally adopted by the European Commission expected tomorrow with live sheep sales to follow on 1 July. A ban on the export of beef and cattle will remain in place but the EU committee decided Northern Ireland should enjoy a special regional exemption within the UK to export other produce.
The decision was welcomed by farming leaders and Stormont ministers amid a warning that vigilance needed to be maintained and that work was needed to regain lost markets. Douglas Rowe, president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, said: "This is a great relief. We have a large agri-food industry in Northern Ireland worth over £2 billion annually, but a small population. It is very important that these trade restrictions have been lifted. We must continue to fight the disease but access to the export markets will be a major boost."
The vote to lift the export restrictions, which was opposed by Spain but approved by all other EU member states, was accompanied by permission to move sheep to common grazing ground.
But Brid Rodgers, the agriculture minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, said a ban on livestock and produce entering from Britain and movement controls within the province would remain.
She said: "I need hardly say that it is more important than ever that we all redouble our efforts to ensure that we have no further foot-and-mouth disease cases.
"We have all seen false dawns in the foot-and-mouth story in the past. While it is important to get back to normality, we still have to take steps to ensure that if the virus is still out there, it doesn't spread again."
Despite early fears that the foot-and-mouth virus had spread in significant quantities from Britain to the province, thereby also endangering the Irish Republic, just four cases have been reported so far.
The resumption of exports came as police in Northern Ireland confirmed that the farmer at the centre of the first outbreak in the province, in February at Meigh, south Armagh, could face prosecution.
An RUC team set up to investigate the alleged illegal import of livestock from Britain has sent a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions.Reuse content