If  DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn was in any doubt about the havoc wrought by foot-and-mouth disease, then a meeting with farmers at Skipton Auction Mart will have spelt it out in plain English.

One farmer after another came to confront Mr Benn at the mart in North Yorkshire with distressing accounts of businesses in turmoil.

One man spoke for everyone around the ring when he candidly asked the minister: “What are you going to do to get us out of this mess?” In Whitehall-speak came the reply: “Our aim is to see normal economic activity return as soon as possible.”

That was no help to the listening cattle and sheep producers, whose priority is to get stock shifted before winter sets in.

“Movement of livestock will mean movement of cash and that’s what farmers are concerned with now as they try to salvage something from all of this,” said Lancashire farmer Thomas Binns, chairman of the NFU livestock board.

Case for cash

Mr Binns had joined other NFU officials in talks with Mr Benn before he entered the fray at the market and said the union had made a clear-cut case for cash. “The livestock sector is in the midst of a major crisis that radiates far beyond the exclusion zones covering foot-and-mouth and now bluetongue,” he said.

“The government must urgently get a handle on both the immediate and long-term implications of all this. Losses to individual businesses are substantial and any aid package must reflect that.”

Time and again, moving from farmer to farmer around the ringside, Mr Benn was told that it was the hill farming sector that had taken the full brunt of the fall-out from the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Whether he grasped the fact that a leaking pipe in the lush pastures of Surrey had dealt a life-threatening blow to farming and the environment in the hills and uplands of England, Scotland and Wales remains to be seen.

There was a modicum of contrition when Mr Benn admitted that “lessons had been learned” over the eight days when sheep infected with foot-and-mouth were not identified on a Surrey holding, but when asked directly why the government – with six years to plan it – had not had a time-specific contingency plan to cope with a foot-and-mouth outbreak at such a critical time of year for stock movement, Mr Benn fudged a credible response.

But he had no shortage of hard-hitters to cope with. Steve Dorey was up from Norton Disney in Lincolnshire, although he hadn’t brought his wagon with him. That wagon normally hauls 4000 lambs out of the Skipton sale ring during the winter to finish on roots.

He said to Mr Benn: “I’ve spent £10,000 putting in 500 acres of winter keep for lambs. I’m one mile inside the bluetongue surveillance zone, so I now have no lamb finishing business because there is no guarantee I’ll be able to move those lambs to a market. And my local auction at Newark can’t operate because of bluetongue restrictions.”

Mr Dorey alerted Mr Benn to the full ramifications of what increasing numbers of farmers are calling the government’s “knee-jerk” reaction to bluetongue. “It looks like we’ve got it and we’ll have to learn to deal with it in the long term. So why don’t we accept that like other EU countries have done and just get on with it? Locking up big areas of the UK is only causing more financial hardship to livestock farmers.”

Mr Benn was generous with platitudes, such as “we are working closely with supermarkets” and “we want to increase the promotion of British meat”. All of which served only to expose the minister’s failure to grasp what is really at stake here – the future of the UK’s hill farming sector as a critical source of livestock for lowland farms and, ultimately, a key player in feeding the nation.

Young Lancashire farmer Graham Horn from Kelbrook, near Colne, told the minister that his farming business faced a “daunting future”.

Looking Mr Benn straight in the eye, he delivered an impassioned plea for young farmers hit by the crisis: “I’m here today to sell some sheep to try and get some cash back in the bank. I’ve had almost 12 weeks with no income and it has cost me £7000.

“Other countries deal with these problems and get on with farming. Here in the UK we seem hell-bent on destroying farmers’ businesses in the process.”

Although seemingly earnest in his show of concern for farmers’ problems, there still appears to be a huge gulf in the minister’s understanding of the devastating effect of closing down a vast part of the UK’s breeding and store stock sector at this time of year. But, then, this is a man who in the midst of a serious crisis gripping agriculture, chose to make a statement at his party’s annual conference about the banning of energy-sapping light bulbs by 2012.

He needs to realise that if the government doesn’t get its act together pretty damn quick, the lights in British agriculture will have gone out long before then.

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