A former vet within the Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Service Animal Health Group has won a landmark action against the department after she discovered livestock movement rules were being “abused” by livestock markets in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Tamara Bronckaers, who is from Co. Tyrone, claimed she believed as many as 25,000 animals were involved in “deleted moves” in Northern Ireland over a five-year period.

The moves appear to relate to animals that had been bought by cattle dealers and then sold on.

When Dr. Bronckaers raised the issue she found senior staff within the department to be unsupportive of her concerns, admonishing her for pursuing the issue, ultimately resulting in her constructive dismissal.

“For over a year, she had been regularly excluded, ignored and undermined and her professional opinion ignored in relation to the welfare of animals at livestock markets and the traceability issues in relation to the deletion of cattle moves,” the court judgement stated.

Belfast law firm McCartan Turkington Breen, which represented Dr. Bronckaers said the case could result in a total award of up to £1 million.

Whistleblower vet

Dr. Bronckaers made two arguments in relation to legislative failures, including that some Livestock Market Operators were not adhering to their statutory duties and responsibilities, and that department officials were aware of this and failed to adhere to their responsibilities to enforce the relevant legislation.

She alleged that some livestock markets had “deleted” cattle moves under the Cattle Identification (Notice of Births, Deaths and Movements) Regulations (Northern Ireland 1999). It was claimed welfare issues she reported were played down in follow up action.

A representative for Dr. Bronckaers said: “What Dr. Bronckaers uncovered and reported on was very concerning due to the adverse effect on traceability of cattle and the consequential likely effect on the spread of disease, in particular TB.

“She says this legislation means that market operators, who were deleting cattle moves, were acting contrary to the legislation, and therefore, committing an offence.

“The relevance of these failures to Dr Bronckaers’ case is that it is precisely because she was highlighting them and making her protected disclosures, that ultimately resulted in her constructive dismissal.”

Despite it being a significant part of her job, Dr. Bronckaers said she was not kept informed of discussions surrounding deleted cattle move issues, nor was she allowed to attend meetings which discussed issues relating to livestock market procedures. She also confirmed that her substantive evidence was called into question by her then line manager and other senior managers.

Dr. Bronckaers, who is married with four children, said: “Animal welfare was a major concern for me and I witnessed first-hand animals suffering unnecessarily – in one livestock market there were overloaded and unclean pens, lame sheep and cattle, and animals being left overnight without food or water.

“During my 19 years in the department, I tried to do what was right and I couldn’t carry on doing a job that I wasn’t being allowed to carry out ethically.

“For my own sanity and mental health, I made the very difficult decision to leave the job. My whole family has suffered as a result but my husband and kids knew what I was going through and I had their full support.

“I believe in telling the truth and I also strongly believe that the department has failed in their duty to protect animal welfare. I suspect that over the past five years, in excess of 25,000 animals have been involved in deleted moves, resulting not only in issues around animal welfare but also detrimental implications for traceability within the supply chain.

“I would encourage anyone from any industry to speak out about issues or problems they recognise in their workplace.”

John McShane, solicitor with McCartan Turkington Breen, said: “Dr. Bronckaers has been extremely brave in coming forward to reveal her concerns about certain practices at the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and the outcome of this case has justified those concerns.

“The situation has had a massive impact on Dr. Bronckaers with her suffering detriments that have affected her family, career and financial situation. However, she felt it was vital to do the right thing and that was to highlight the outrageous issues of animal welfare where she witnessed animals being mistreated.

“Dr. Bronckaers hopes that the result of this case will encourage other people who find themselves in a similar situation to speak out.”

Delivering the Industrial Tribunal’s decision, Employment Judge Orla Murray said: “The claimant’s report that 4,800 to 5,000 animals were annually having their moves deleted out of livestock markets was stated by the claimant to amount to approximately 1.5% of all cattle moves out of livestock markets. This percentage was uncontested.”

A DAERA spokesperson said: “The department has noted the judgment by the Tribunal and cannot comment any further at this stage.”

Representatives for both livestock markets named in proceedings have been contacted for response.