The investigation into a Northland contract milker caught on camera hitting cows with a steel pipe is ongoing over a month after authorities were given footage of the abuse. Farah Hancock reports.
The man is no longer employed at the farm and has lost the use of the house supplied to him as part of his remuneration package.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) confirmed it is still investigating the claims of abuse, but said it could not give details of their investigation as it may prejudice what might be presented to court.
Previously MPI confirmed it searched the farm the day Newsroom broke the story of the abuse. During the search process MPI interviewed a person and inspected all the animals on the farm with an independent vet present.
MPI did share with Newsroom an example of the steps it takes in criminal investigations, stressing these are general steps and not necessarily specific to the Northland investigation.
After gathering and verifying evidence, MPI would decide whether it would prosecute the contract milker. The decision would be “dependent on satisfying both evidential sufficiency and public interest factors”. These are based on the Crown Solicitor Prosecution Guidelines.
Public interest considerations include whether the offence was violent, whether it is likely to be continued and takes into account the vulnerability of victims.
MPI may publicly confirm a person has been charged in relation to the matter after court summons have been received by the defendant. MPI could not say when the investigation was expected to be completed.
The animal rights group Farmwatch, which placed the hidden cameras in the cow shed, said it met with MPI last week to supply further detail on the handling of the footage and the placement of the hidden cameras in the cowshed. It believes MPI has gathered several formal statements from a number of people in regard to the abuse claims.
Farmwatch spokesperson John Darroch said the group had originally supplied the footage to MPI a week before the search took place.
He thinks the delay between the footage being supplied to MPI and the search is due to MPI’s internal process, which involves physically transporting digital files.
“When we give them footage they have to send it down to Wellington to get forensically copied and then it has to be sent to whoever is going to be looking through the footage. Then they have to find an industry vet to go out to the farm with them. That whole process takes them about a week.
“I’ve said to them - to a number of inspectors and managers over the past few months - that’s ridiculous. The public, and I assume the minister, expects them to be able to work faster than that. They’ve just said that’s the process.”
Farmwatch supplied MPI with a month's worth of raw footage and a seperate folder of 20 to 30 minutes of footage highlighting examples of the abuse. Since this case Farmwatch now also supplies screenshots to MPI in an attempt to speed up the process, but has found even with screenshots it can take a week before inspectors visit farms, he said.
Darroch said the public’s response to Farmwatch’s involvement in gathering the footage has been mostly positive.
“The general reaction across the board was that this was a failure by MPI and that Farmwatch was justified in this instance by going in and exposing it. Usually the farming community accuses us of smearing the industry.”
He said he believes the publicity the footage generated had gone some way to raising awareness within the farming community.
Farm workers on the farm said they previously told the farm owners about the abuse and had made complaints to MPI. Their complaints did not result in any action.
Darroch said numerous people have got in touch with Farmwatch since the footage was aired, sharing stories of abuse on other farms.
“It’s the same as before, these people are scared of being identified and are scared of going to authorities about it.”
He previously called for independently monitored cameras to be mandatory in cow sheds and believes there should be greater industry support in place for whistle-blowers.
"The fundamental issue of the abuse happening out of sight, and farm workers being scared to reveal it, I don’t think that has changed at all."
Northland Rural Support Trust co-ordinator Julie Jonker said the trust supports any rural person who needs help, including whistle-blowers.
Currently it is supporting the farm owner and the contract milker at the centre of the abuse scandal.
“Usually in the beginning counselling is not the thing they need straight up. They actually need the practical things to help them move on with their life. They just need to know that somebody is there that cares about them.”
If required, the trust helps people find counsellors, Jonker said.
“I’ve got some very good counsellors that are able to help rural people because they have been in rural situations themselves. To get somebody who understands a person who works in farming, or horticulture or makes their living from primary industries you need somebody who understands the pressures that creates.”