A huge number of animals would have undergone “unspeakable suffering” before perishing in a massive blaze at a pig farm.
The Fire Service said up to 4,300 creatures died as flames engulfed the site at Derrywilligan Road in rural Co Armagh, to the north-west of Newry, although definitive figures are thought to be unknown.
USPCA chief executive Stephen Philpott visited the aftermath, and described it as “a scene of utter destruction with many pigs incinerated in the blaze”, adding that it would have brought “confined creatures unspeakable suffering”.
USPCA spokesman David Wilson added: “It would have been very distressing for anyone to see and hear these animals dying.
“The reason the numbers of pigs that died is so high is because there would have been many litters of 14 to 15 piglets.
“This must have been huge suffering on a huge scale.”
A Fire Service spokeswoman said the fire, involving an outbuilding 100m by 100m in size (328ft by 328ft), took six fire appliances seven hours to bring under control.
“It was well alight on arrival of crews and the fire was very intense,” she said.
“Three sheds were totally destroyed in the blaze and unfortunately 800 sows and approximately 3,500 piglets died in the incident.”
Two fire appliances came from Newtownhamilton, two from Newry, one from Irvinestown with a command support unit, one from Warrenpoint with a water tanker, a hydraulic platform from Portadown and a water tanker from Pomeroy.
Fire crews were called to the blaze at 5.41am on Saturday, and the incident concluded at 12.46pm.
Though the Fire Service initially believed it may have been suspicious, a spokesman later said it was not being treated as such.
The last known position from the police was that the fire remained under investigation.
UUP MLA Danny Kennedy, who lives nearby in Bessbrook, said: “It was a very distressing loss of so many livestock. We will have to await the outcome of police and fire investigators for the full picture to emerge.”
William Irwin, DUP MLA for Newry and Armagh, said: “Agriculture in general is under pressure with costs of production continuing to rise and a real price squeeze on farmers in the processing and retail end of the scale so to see this type of loss of animals and property is concerning and unfortunate for the producer concerned.”
The PSNI said yesterday afternoon: “At this stage, the cause of the fire is still under investigation and inquiries are continuing,” and urged anyone with information to contact police in Ardmore on the non-emergency number 101, or to telephone Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.
Fire ‘was burning for three hours’ before alarm was raised
The farm belongs to Malcolm Keys, a well-known figure in the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and a member of its pigs committee.
Mr Keys himself indicated that he did not want to talk directly to the press.
Ian Marshall, incoming president of the UFU, told the News Letter: “He’s devastated. He’s annoyed, as any farmer is, to see suffering to any livestock.
“It’s a lot of time and effort and investment (that goes) into that type of unit, and to see it decimated like that in a few hours is very, very stressful.”
Asked if it was the worst such disaster he had come across in his 30-year farming career, Mr Marshall – who replaces Harry Sinclair as UFU head tomorrow – said: “It has to be up there.”
He estimated that the financial cost of the blaze would run into six figures.
A Markethill-based dairy farmer, Mr Marshall said the blaze happened between the settlements of Bessbrook and Mountnorris, only around five miles from him.
He added that Mr Keys does not live at the site, although there are CCTV cameras in place there for security purposes.
It is understood that the alarm had been raised by a neighbouring dairy farmer as he was going out to milk his cattle.
“We’re led to believe that by that stage it had already been burning for three hours,” said Mr Marshall.
“That’s reports from locals who said that, by virtue of the damage that had been done by the stage when the emergency services arrived, this was a fire that hadn’t just started a few minutes previously. It had been burning for quite a while.”
He said that Mr Keys believes the source could have been an electrical fault, though it is not certain at this stage.