DOCUMENTS obtained under freedom of information have revealed the extent of illegal, repeated on-farm trespassing by animal rights activists, to gather video footage for use in strategic campaigning, to try and ban intensive livestock industries.
The documents obtained by the NSW Greens and published online expose high level discussions between farm industry stakeholders, including Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce, at a roundtable meeting in August last year.
Jointly-hosted between Mr Joyce and NSW Agriculture Minister Niall Blair, at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agriculture Institute at Camden, the private meeting was also attended by representatives from other states and territories, along with the NSW police, RSPCA NSW and NSWFarmers.
The forum committed to an action plan designed to push a harmonised national approach to help curtail the escalating activist activity.
A summary of the meeting as shown in the FOI documents said 38 piggeries in the Young area of NSW, along with poultry farms in other states, were known to have been “invaded for the purpose of installing unauthorised surveillance devices, ostensibly to ‘reveal’ animal husbandry practice believed to be poor”.
“These incursions fall in to the ‘trespass with intent’ category,” said a summary of meeting input provided by NSW Assistant Police Commissioner Geoff McKechnie and Detective Inspector Paul Huxtable, the Cootamundra Local Area Command Crime Manager.
Documents show that the NSW Police also told the forum that a successful farm trespass prosecution required the event to be shown to be an intentional act.
“NSW Police have been investigating these incidents actively, but evidence gathering around such incidents presents significant challenges,” the documents said.
“For example, sometimes the first notice the owner has of the incursion is the internet publication of video footage taken on the premises and this publication may occur weeks or months after the trespass occurred.
“Difficulty in identifying the person responsible for taking the footage, and its publication, as well as the two year statute of limitations applying to trespass offences, can all hamper prosecution.
“Where prosecution is pursued, it is often prized by the perpetrators for its benefits in promoting their cause, with a cost that is tolerable given the relatively light penalties.
“Penalties for trespass tend to be financial in nature, which may not be an effective deterrent for the motivation to enter without permission, and are relatively light.”
NSW Police also told the forum that the ideology of farm trespass by animal activists was “complex” and not based on improving animal welfare practices.
“In invading lawfully operating animal production enterprises, it appears that the underlying motivation may be more based on animal liberation principles (that is, elimination of all animal production for human consumption) than good animal welfare standards,” they said.
“Further, real animal welfare and health risks posed to the animals when biosecurity protocols are breached to gain entry appear to be often ignored by the perpetrator.
“Surveillance and subsequent publication of footage obtained is often alleged by the farmer to have been selected and edited to misrepresent owners and their families in the worst possible light, with little explanatory context provided, to ensure that the farm and its owners reputations are tarnished in the local community and the industry and maximise the impact on their business.”
NSW Police said increasing access by private individuals to drones had also raised concerns about the devices being used as “potential instruments” of unauthorised observation and surveillance, when fitted with a camera or recording device.
They also said unlawful acts of farm trespass were “hard to stop altogether” but it was important to make it “as difficult as possible” by denying or delaying access; for example via locked gates and buildings.
“Such action makes clear that an offence is being committed, entry in breach of warning signage and biosecurity conditions of entry,” the document said.
“Introduction of other measures to improve evidence collection, for example, security cameras may also be considered.
“Improved communication and working relationships between producers and their local police are critical to improving security, prevention and evidence collection.”
NSWFarmers Egg Committee Chair Bede Burke and Edwina Beveridge of Blantyre Farms at Young in NSW also provided their thoughts and experiences on farm trespass to the roundtable.
They said the forced entry into sheds and barns, usually late at night, caused distress to the animals and sometimes “extensive vandalism” occurred during the invasion.
“The personal impact on producers when they discover the trespass is significant, as with any breach of privacy - they fear for their and their families’ safety, the welfare of their animals, concern if they or their staff confront the intruder, anxiety about their business and their local reputation, including how their children will be treated by their peers at school after publication of the footage which seeks to impugn their parents’ or family’s reputation,” the documents said.
“Subsequent publication of covert footage is generally intended to portray the producer’s business, and them personally, in the worst possible light.
“Images are chosen, and perhaps constructed or manipulated, for their ‘shock value’ to the public to incite outrage at producer activities.
“Release of personal information about the producer and their families on the internet is intended to make them the target of public opprobrium, with the producer having little opportunity or means to defend them-selves in this open forum.
“Is it reasonable that an activist remains unaccountable for these broader impacts?”
But animal rights group Voiceless said the roundtable was “clearly an attempt to try and gag the whistleblowers, rather than address the heart of the issue: animal abuse across Australian industries”.
Voiceless said in recent years, animal activists had exposed widespread live baiting in the greyhound industry, leading to government reform in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania and “repeatedly uncovered systemic breaches in Australia’s live export industry”.
However, a spokesperson for Mr Joyce said animal cruelty was against the law and it was not condoned by the Coalition government and any evidence of such acts should be provided to the relevant enforcement authority, for proper investigation.
“The Coalition government is concerned about an escalation in illegal farm invasions carried out by animal activists to disrupt, harass, obstruct and interfere with lawful and legitimate farming and business activities,” a statement said.
“These illegal activities pose significant threats to on-farm biosecurity measures which increase health risks to animals, cause distress to farmers and their families and results in poor welfare outcomes for animals on these farms.
“Just as people are not permitted to trespass on urban private properties they should not be able to do so on rural enterprises, many of which are farmers’ family homes.”
Mr Joyce’s spokesperson said the Coalition government’s long term goal was to encourage state and territory governments to strengthen trespass laws and to seek a national approach to the protection of animal industries from disruptive and illegal activities undertaken by animal activists.
A suggested action item to come from the roundtable forum was to examine the charitable status of groups that use animal welfare as a pretence to campaign on animal rights, political agenda that targets farmers.
“Where there are organisations supporting animal activists in their activities, these organisations often derive significant taxation benefits from their recognition as charities, yet often appear to have other dominant purposes for existing,” the FOI documents said.
“For example, it may be possible to establish that the main purpose of the organisation is political rather than charitable and seek a determination as to whether this may be grounds to terminate its charitable status.”
Mr Joyce’s spokesperson said taxpayers would not support the concept of subsidising the operations of organisations that wilfully break the law, through tax breaks.
“Animal welfare organisations that claim charitable tax status should be able to demonstrate the funds donated to them go to support bona fide charitable activities,” a statement said.
“Veterinarian and Coalition (WA Liberal) Senator Chris Back introduced legislation to the former parliament which would have required immediate release to authorities within 24 hours of any evidence of animal cruelty obtained by animal welfare organisations that trespass on properties.
“I note this private members’ legislation was supported by a Senate Committee investigation and has significant merit.”
Egg Farmers Australia CEO John Dunn attended the round table meeting while in his former policy role at NSWFarmers and said farm incursion had been a problem for agriculture that needed to be addressed.
“How would you feel if you found someone sneaking around your living room at 3am?” he said.
“More importantly, it's unnecessary.”
Mr Dunn said facts about farming systems were readily available through rural Research and Development Corporations and the law was also designed to deal with acts of genuine animal cruelty.
He said those “robust processes” included state-based RSPCA's like in NSW which worked collaboratively with industry to ensure animals were well cared for and if not, penalties were imposed.
“Thirdly, if you break into a property you are breaking the law,” he said.
“It's a crime and it's one that needs to stop because there's nothing to expose when there's nothing to hide.”
Mr Dunn said state and federal governments were dealing responsibly with what was an illegal activity, while farmers were always focused on how to be more open with consumers.
“Unfortunately we can't have every farm open for a wander through because biosecurity precludes that - but we are constantly looking for ways to be more transparent,” he said.
“As that work continues, it's appropriate to examine ways of ensuring the safety of our farms, our animals and our biosecurity are protected.
“Stopping illegal farm incursions is a good start.”
The FOI documents said farm trespass was an issue of “national concern” which threatened “significant animal industries and therefore warrants a coordinated harmonised approach to prevent and reduce the impact of such incidents”.
It said allied livestock industries, including saleyards and abattoirs, had been targeted and some industries and individuals had experienced repeated incidents of trespass, “threatening their individual and community well-being”.
The roundtable’s action plan included; improved facility signage, with private property and biosecurity warnings; controlled and designated exit and entry points; and owners installing CCTV surveillance and/or alarms at the main gate, other entry points, access roads, and within the facility.
The action plan also said “invasion response” strategies must be developed for “reputation management” to “counteract disproportionate messaging” by animal activist groups using websites, social media and traditional media.
“For example there could be a panel of experts available to review surveillance video footage and assist with appropriate wording to correct the record and defend reputations of individuals and industry,” it said.
“Emphasise that ‘it’s not OK’ to break into people’s homes and businesses to ambush them and present one side of the story - there is another more acceptable way to deal with your concerns.”
The story Animal rights anti-farm agenda exposed at private meeting first appeared on Farm Online.