The View from Northern Ireland: Further growth of the agri-food sector, Common Agricultural Policy Reform, TB/BR eradication, refreshing the Rural White Action Plan and progressing the relocation of the Department of Agricultural and Rural Development to rural areas will be key areas of work for 2014.

That was the message from Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O’Neill as she looked toward priority areas for the year ahead.

In a statement issued today she said: “This year saw the development and launch of Going for Growth, the report of the Agri-Food Strategy Board. The wide-ranging recommendations focused on delivering sustainable growth for our farmers, fishermen and food processors across the entire supply chain and have generated significant excitement and discussion in the sector.

“I share the board’s optimism for the future prospects of the sector and my department will continue to work in partnership with board members and other departments and agencies, as we start implementing agreed actions to deliver on the aims and objectives of Going for Growth. I look forward to spending the coming 12 months working with those committed to supporting the growth ambitions of this, our most important sector.”

On CAP Reform Minister O’Neill said: “2014 will see decisions made on CAP Reform implementation and there are many different options available. These are outlined in the consultation document and I would encourage all stakeholders to respond before the deadline of 17 January 2014. We remain on course for the implementation of CAP Reform in 2015. Meanwhile in 2014, most schemes will continue relatively unchanged.

“Although disappointed by recent developments, I consider the Rural Development Programme to be a key mechanism in delivering positive change in our rural areas and it is important that it is adequately funded. Similarly, I know how important direct payments are to our farm businesses. It is my aim that the next Rural Development Programme will have sufficient funding for a Farm Capital Investment Scheme, support measures for our hill farmers and other farming facing measures. Through the next programme I am determined to ensure that funding is in place to continue to protect our natural environment through a well-funded agri-environment scheme, and continue to provide support to our rural businesses and voluntary organisations, which are so vital to our rural communities.”

Minister O’Neill highlighted that continued good progress is being made towards brucellosis eradication and that it is very encouraging that it is almost two years since its last confirmed breakdown. Warning against complacency she said: “I ‘think biosecurity’ mindset is essential, which is why we issued all herdkeepers with statutory brucellosis biosecurity guidance. Farmers should remain vigilant and continue to report abortions so that animals can be tested for brucellosis. The greatest risk is from imported breeding stock or from an infected animal that has yet to disclose infection. The current winter testing programme is therefore of vital importance. If we can achieve three years without a confirmed brucellosis breakdown we could seek EU Officially Brucellosis Free (OBF) status early in 2015 to allow the progressive reduction in the level of annual and pre-movement testing for brucellosis.”

On TB she said: “It is encouraging that TB herd incidence has fallen steadily over the past 12 months from 7.46 per cent at 31 October 2012 to 6.34 per cent at 31 October 2013. But again, there can be no room for complacency and I wish to consider what more can be done in relation to bovine TB eradication in the context of government / industry strategic partnership. I have also responded positively to industry requests to incentivise the introduction of high biosecure Alternative Control Herds, which may provide an alternative outlet for TB breakdown herdkeepers.

“Work continues in relation to the design and business case for the “Test and Vaccinate or Remove (TVR)” wildlife intervention research. The TVR badger sett survey work is progressing well in the two 100km² areas in Co Down, with permissions now received for some 81 per cent of land in the Banbridge/Rathfriland area and some 82 per cent of the land near Castlewellan. Work is also ongoing to put in place the joint Government Industry Strategic Partnership which will, once established, be tasked with developing a long term strategy for TB eradication.

“Good biosecurity is not only a vital message for bovine TB and brucellosis, but in relation to production diseases as well and I applaud industry initiatives in this regard.”

The minister explained that she intended to revisit the Rural White Paper Action Plan in 2014 with a view to identifying new and challenging actions for inclusion in a refreshed Action Plan.

She explained: “I wish to build on the success of the first year of operation of the Action Plan by ensuring that it remains a live initiative that continues to respond to the needs of rural areas. Issues such as access to transport, broadband and affordable childcare remain key challenges in rural areas and I will be looking at what further measures can be taken to address challenges such as these in a refreshed Action Plan. The Rural White Paper Action Plan is a key instrument for delivering the Executive’s commitments to rural areas and I will be working closely with my Executive colleagues during 2014 to ensure that the Action Plan continues to deliver positive outcomes for our rural communities.”

The Minister reported progress on advancing the relocation of the Department to rural areas. She said: “The relocation programme involves moving the headquarters of Fisheries to South Down, the Forest Service headquarters to Fermanagh, the Rivers Agency headquarters to Loughry and the rest of the department’s headquarters to Ballykelly. Relocating to the four different rural areas emphasises that DARD is a Department that promotes regional economic development and is committed to the sustainability of rural communities. The relocations will accelerate the Department’s movement to being more modern, more efficient and more accessible to rural dwellers, delivering greater benefits to rural communities.”

In conclusion the minister said: “I remain committed to doing whatever I can as DARD Minister to continue to grow our agri-food sector and also to work hard to improve the lives of all rural dwellers. I wish you and your families a peaceful and prosperous New Year.”