IRISH CATTLE exporters are optimistic they have secured a new shipper to take over from P&O Ferries on the Rosslare to Cherbourg route, maintaining the crucial link for live exports to continental Europe.

P&O announced last October it was quitting the business, since then the Irish industry has focused on finding a replacement service, as well as opening up a land route through the UK.

Following detailed negotiations, a consortium of exporters, backed by agriculture minister Mary Coughlan, has now put a formal proposal to French ferry company CMA-CGM.

This is understood to guarantee about E2.2m (£1.54m) of live exports a year, plus a similar amount of other freight.

According to industry sources, that is equivalent to about 1000 lorry loads of calves and/or weanlings a year – more than has been shipped in 2004, but less than the five-year average.

The French company, which has 175 vessels and is the fifth largest shipper in the world, is expected to decide on the offer on Friday (Dec 10).

Irish Farmers‘ Association livestock chairman John Bryan said he was confident the new ferry service could be operational early next year, following the P&O pull-out on Dec 19.

In 2003 Irish farmers exported around 220,000 live animals on the Rosslare/Cherbourg route, though that has dropped to 130,000 this year.

Irish Cattle and Sheep Association general secretary Eddie Punch believes the trade will expand again next year post-decoupling.

“Bull calves will be sold abroad, rather than retained to claim any premiums,” he said.