Gardeners snagged by farcical new Irish Sea border rule as British soil is banned from Northern Ireland because of Brexit – and harmful peat is promoted

The Irish Sea border has led to a ban on even tiny quantities of British soil being brought into Northern Ireland and is perversely incentivising the destruction of the environment, the owner of a major garden centre has warned.

Monday, 25th January 2021, 7:00 am
The Irish Sea border has banned British soil from Northern Ireland – and that is helping to push one of NI’s biggest garden centres ‘to the brink of collapse’

As the full scale of the trade barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland continues to emerge, veteran businessman Robin Mercer said that gardeners should prepare for “a spring of disarray” as trading patterns which have existed for centuries are disrupted.

Mr Mercer, who owns one of Northern Ireland’s largest garden centres, Hillmount, said bluntly: “I fear for our fourth generation family-run garden centre business. Like many others we’re on the brink of collapse through no fault of our own.”

He appealed for politicians to “see sense” over “ridiculous” new rules .

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But when the News Letter asked Secretary of State Brandon Lewis if he now accepted that there is a border in the Irish Sea – something he has denied – his department did not answer that question and instead responded by talking up “the opportunities leaving the EU brings”.

The NIO insisted that “overall businesses are adjusting well to the new rules and continue to trade effectively”.

But last night Mr Mercer told the News Letter that the reality is that “everything’s going up in price” – except, that is, for the items which will not be available for sale in Northern Ireland at any price because GB companies are refusing to sell here.

The businessman highlighted how the government is now farcically encouraging him to use peat – despite having spent years urging him to give up the precious natural resource because harvesting it is harmful to the environment.

In an extraordinary example of how the new red tape is incentivising the destruction of peat bogs which hold vast quantities of carbon and are key to delaying climate change, Mr Mercer said that it was now illegal to import a plant which contains on its roots any soil or bark-based peat-free compost.

However, EU rules which in the UK will now only be enforced in Northern Ireland, will mean that plants grown exclusively in peat will not be banned – although they will still require expensive customs declarations and plant certificates to cross the Irish Sea.

The EU rules are designed to prevent soil diseases from entering the EU, yet the island of Ireland and Great Britain have traded in plants containing soil for centuries.

And Mr Mercer said it was particularly nonsensical because it is legal to import soil from thousands of miles away in Italy or Poland, simply because they are in the EU.

Mr Mercer said: “We’ve been told that there is no issue if they’re planted in pure peat. That means that there’s going to be a world shortage of peat before long.

“The government has been asking us to replace peat with recycled bark and other materials – but now we have one part of government saying that and another part of government saying the opposite.”

Mr Mercer said that his family business, which has been going for 80 years, had for generations been trading with rose growers, specialist rhododendron nurseries and seed companies in England, Scotland and Wales.

Now those companies would have to grow their products in special peat compost just to supply the Northern Ireland market, he said, and that is something many of them simply will not do.

Mr Mercer said that non-plant products are also problematic: “We have even been told that the pallets the goods are travelling on even requires certification. The whole thing is ridiculous. We have been ordering the same plants, bird food and gardening tools for years and almost overnight a wooden handled trowel cannot be delivered to us. Roses can’t be shipped due to how they are grown. Yet one supplier in GB is saying they can ship our order to Europe and drive it to us via the Republic. Where is the sense in that?”

Referring to what he said was a general ignorance even in government about the complexity of the rules, he said: “Nobody really can tell us what is going on. There just doesn’t seem to be a rule book.”

Mr Mercer said the situation was particularly precarious for garden centres because it comes after almost a year of economic devastation stemming from the pandemic, and also at a time when there is severe global shortage of shipping containers, something which meant he had been quoted £12,000 for a container from China which would have previously cost a tenth of that.

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) is also lobbying the government, urging it to work with the EU to explore ways to ease the new rules.

The body’s chairman, James Barnes, told the BBC: “The impact of these complex and burdensome changes is far-reaching for GB and NI.”

The News Letter asked the NIO what the government was doing to help the horticultural trade in the face of the new Irish Sea border.

In a brief statement, the NIO said: “We are working closely with the horticulture industry to ensure they understand the new trading environment and can take advantage of the opportunities leaving the EU brings. Overall businesses are adjusting well to the new rules and continue to trade effectively.

“Alongside other measures, we have put in place the Movement Assistance Scheme (MAS) to support and assist traders moving plants, plant products, and agrifood from GB to NI – this minimises business uncertainty by supporting the direct costs of new certification requirements.”

However, Mr Mercer said that schemes such as the MAS were temporary – and even they don’t resolve all the problems.

NI firms pushed towards only ordering from RoI or EU

The way Brexit has unfolded is forcing Northern Ireland firms to buy their products from the Republic or elsewhere in the EU – but even that is not a simple solution for many companies.

Beth Lunney, who runs Saintfield Nursery Centre, told the BBC that her long-standing supplier of azaleas and rhododendrons had told her “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get this over to you. It’s really about the possibility that there’s soil on the pots”, and then her rose supplier had delivered the same message.

As with so many other businesses, that is now forcing Northern Ireland companies who had traded with Great Britain to instead buy their products from the Republic or other EU states.

Ms Lunney said that “a couple of nurseries down south are emailing us all the time saying they’re going to have roses”. But she said that they would not be like-for-like replacements: “You’re not getting particular varieties that you maybe really want.”

Robin Mercer of Hillmount made the same point: “Although we can source plants from Holland or the Republic of Ireland, the fact is that the quality of product that customers of Hillmount expect come from plants grown in Great Britain.”

He said that one reason for that was the climactic differences between the continent and the British Isles: “Once you head further afield to Spain or Italy, there are different brands and breeds. They’re just not as hardy in our climate.”

While that is not an issue for plants grown in the Republic, that is a far smaller horticultural sector than the UK and does not offer the same variety.

Mr Mercer said there would be other major problems ‘importing’ – as the government now describes it – traditional organic fertilisers such as fish, blood and bone from the UK.

Many GB seed companies and plant nurseries have already stopped selling to Northern Ireland gardeners by mail order or online.

And earlier this month the Daily Mirror revealed that BBC Gardener’s World magazine has stopped supplying packets of seeds with copies sold in Northern Ireland due to the Irish Sea border.


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