Maine Animal Welfare Agents exhumed pig carcases from Ireland Hill Farms in Swanville as they executed a search warrant at the farm Wednesday. The agents are investigating alleged animal abuse at the farm. Credit: Gabor Degre

Agents from the Maine Animal Welfare Program donned bulletproof vests and armed themselves with shovels and a backhoe Wednesday to go to a Swanville farm and exhume the carcasses of at least three pigs buried on the property.

The agents wore protective clothing because cases of alleged animal neglect can become tense and emotional, according to Liam Hughes, the director of the state’s animal welfare program.

He said that the activity in Swanville was part of an ongoing animal abuse investigation at Ireland Hill Farms, which is owned by Jerry and Emily Ireland. Jerry Ireland, an Army veteran, is the chief executive officer and president of the nonprofit group United Farmer Veterans of Maine.

“We’re investigating possible neglect of the animals here,” Hughes said at the farm. “This is a very challenging investigation.”

He declined to share any details about why state agents and a local animal control officer decided to dig up the pig carcasses. More information may become available in court documents filed in support of the department’s search warrant, which were not made public on Wednesday.

“Everything we do is revolving around a complaint or a concern,” Hughes said, but did not specifically discuss the complaint or concern that led to the Swanville exhumation.

Ireland told the BDN Wednesday in a Facebook message that there have been no charges filed against him and that he does not believe the investigation is happening because of legitimate concerns about the welfare of his animals.

“It will be proven to be frivolous in court,” he said.

In a previous Facebook message sent in late November of 2017, he said that he was in a dispute with the state about what he was feeding his pigs. He was feeding them potatoes, hay and forage, but he said the state wanted them to be fed grain and that he didn’t know how the situation was going to end.

In a brief phone conversation with the BDN on Wednesday afternoon, he said that he didn’t know what had happened on his farm that day and didn’t want to comment further about it, again saying that it would all be settled in court.

The Irelands were featured in a BDN story in April 2016 about Mangalitsa pigs, a rare heritage breed that is known for its fatty, delicious meat. Back then, the farmers unloaded a trailer with the curly-coated piglets and greeted them with excitement and smiles. The scene was one of celebration. But this week, things were very different at the farm on Nickerson Road in Swanville. Four white state vehicles were parked next to a rusting vintage farm truck, and a backhoe made its way down a muddy lane toward the end of the field, where the operator got to work looking for buried animals.

Neither of the Irelands were present Wednesday and it was unclear if they knew the agents were coming.

A member of the Maine Militia, a non-governmental citizen’s group that claims to have chapters in all 16 counties, was using binoculars to watch the action from the roadside. He said he had spoken to Jerry Ireland on the phone and urged him to steer clear of the property while the state agents were working there.

A state trooper, later joined by two other troopers, was also there to provide what he called “scene security.” Hughes told the BDN that animal issues can be difficult for animal owners, and that his agency makes body armor such as bullet-proof vests available to agents working in the field. It was unclear why so many troopers came to the farm.

“We want our staff to be as safe as possible,” he said.

After working at the farm for a couple of hours, the backhoe operator brought the carcasses of three pigs toward the road. An agent told the BDN that “multiple” pig carcasses had been unearthed, but she declined to give the precise number. The state agents wrapped the animals in plastic bags before putting them in the back of the state vehicles. Hughes said that he and his agents are trying to gather facts right now and that his department is responsible for upholding the state’s animal welfare laws.

“All animals need to have clean, humane living conditions,” he said, adding that they also need proper food, water and medical care. “We’re looking for shelter, food, water, nutrition. We also try to work with people so it doesn’t get to this point.”

Hughes said that his agency has been trying to make contact with Jerry Ireland for a while, but so far has been unsuccessful.

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