The High Court has ordered farmer Michael Hoey and Country Crest Farming Ltd to pay an apple farm damages of just over €88,200 in relation to harm judged to have been caused by herbicide spray drift in 2011.

John Donnelly and Sons Ltd had contended that spotting and speckling was apparent on “many apples in the orchard” seven days after a potato crop growing in a nearby field was sprayed by an employee of Country Crest during windy conditions on 10 September 2011.

These apples had to be sold for processing and for cider instead of in retail, which led to a loss in revenue of over €88,000 for the farm.

Abnormalities

The court had heard that these abnormalities were more prevalent near the boundary with a field under lease to Country Crest some 150m away from the orchard and that the exposed side of apples had been more visibly affected than the sheltered sides.

Operator of the family fruit and vegetable business at Oldcastle, Co Dublin, Mr Donnacha Donnelly had said he was “surprised” that Country Crest had chosen to spray herbicides on that particular day “due to high winds”.

The cause of the orchard's damage was hotly contested between the two parties. / Philip Doyle

The herbicide spray in question was Spotlight Plus, which contains the active ingredient carfentrazone–ethyl.

In his judgement, Mr Justice Barr noted that the cause of the harm to the apples had been “hotly contested” between the two parties.

Country Crest had maintained that the damage was caused by Mr Donnelly’s applications of calcium chloride sprays to the apples in previous months, claiming that damage was “spread evenly throughout the entire orchard” which would not indicate spray drift.

On the basis of the evidence presented to the court, it was ruled that the damage to apples was “more severe in those areas that were closer to the potato field” and the court accepted that the application of calcium chloride sprays was in-line with user directions.

Residues

Differing interpretations of herbicide residue test results from apples picked from the affected orchard was also heard from both sides.

Witnesses for the apple farmer had claimed that a residue test which came back negative for the active ingredient in Spotlight was not “surprising”, as the herbicide can have a short half-life and degrade relatively quickly once sprayed, a point disputed by Country Crest’s witnesses.

The judge ruled that because the active ingredient has a variable half-life and the samples had been tested some time after the herbicide had been sprayed, the result “does not establish that the damage to the apples was not caused by spray drift”.

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The judge found that Country Crest had acted negligently in spraying the herbicide in the “windy conditions” of 10 September 2011 and that the harm caused to Mr Donnelly’s orchard had been “foreseeable”, given the spray drift warnings for windy weather displayed on the herbicide.

It was also proposed that Mr Hoey and Country Crest should pay the orchard owners’ legal bills.