Dublin — Beef farmers marched on Ireland’s parliament on Wednesday, piling muddy boots outside its front gates in protest against the EU-Mercosur trade deal they fear will gut the industry.

“The big problem we have as farmers is the doublespeak within the EU,” said Hugh Doyle, a beef farmer and co-chair of campaign group Beef Plan Movement.

“They have restrictions on farmers, environmental restrictions on farmers all around Europe, and we have to farm in an environmental way. Then suddenly they will do a deal with a country that absolutely flouts that.”

The EU’s Mercosur deal, 20 years in the making, covers markets that total approximately 780-million consumers representing a quarter of global GDP.

Brussels says the pact with the South American bloc will save European companies more than €4bn in trade duties every year.

But controversial agricultural quotas, including the opening of EU markets to 99,000 tons of South American beef per year, has provoked a backlash that could imperil its ratification by the bloc’s 28 member states.

Organisers of Wednesday’s demonstration against the pact said about 3,000 farmers travelled from across Ireland to attend.

Protesters said they fear the new quotas will allow South American beef to flood the European market and undercut domestic production.

Rubber boots were piled outside parliament under a placard reading “no longer needed” while another sign pleaded: “Save Ireland from Mercosur meat wave.”

“We’re not able to exist like this, and they’re talking about bringing down the price of beef by flooding the market with cheap Mercosur beef,” complained Connell Tiernan, 55, a beef farmer from County Roscommon in the West of Ireland.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has pledged to make an economic assessment of the deal and vote against it if it is bad for the Irish economy “in the round”.

Farmers also protested over a range of other issues alongside the Mercosur deal, including the growing prospect of a hard Brexit which could see tariffs introduced on the fragile sector.

According to the Irish Farmers’ Association, Ireland exports 50% of its beef to Britain, leaving it exposed to a “direct hit” of €800m under a no-deal Brexit.