12 July 2002

20-day stance big threat

By James Garner

GOVERNMENT intransigence on the 20-day rule could have dire consequences, warn campaigners who are stepping up their bids to have the unpopular legislation scrapped before the autumn selling season.

In the past week the National Beef Association has warned that auction markets and stock traceability is threatened by DEFRAs stance on the measure. The National Sheep Association has also strengthened its case by preparing an argument based on the differences between the sheep industry and other livestock sectors.

Chief executive, John Thorley, says the organisation is working with the NFU and the Sheep Vet Society and the SVSs plan to replace the 20-day standstill with a five-day one. "Sheep only have a short reproductive and breeding cycle and are limited by a reduced growing season in the hills and uplands. This makes for a very strong economic argument for allowing sheep to move without 20-day restrictions."

DEFRA remains steadfast, although it has mellowed from its original position, which stated that the rule would stay until a permanent movement regime for stock was introduced in November.

Now it says that it must consider the two remaining foot-and-mouth reports – due next week – before making any concessions. A spokesman added that it was "very much aware" of the industrys opposition to the rule.

But several livestock markets will be threatened if no move is made before then, says the NBA. Turnover at markets since they reopened is down considerably, according to latest figures. "More buyers and sellers have decided they want to trade privately and the result is that the auction system is dying in front of our eyes," says chief executive, Robert Forster.

In March, April and May just 44,644 prime cattle passed through markets, compared with over three times that number in 2000. Likewise, sheep numbers through the live ring in the same months this year were only 42% of those in 2000, when 1.45m sheep went under the hammer.

Kevin Pearce, NFU livestock adviser, says there are strong structural and economic arguments for removing the rule, particularly for mixed units as they approach the autumn.

"They face peak movements on and off their holdings from both breeding sheep and store sales, and suckled calf sales during the autumn. The 20-day rule will have a tremendous impact on these sales, for which there is no alternative. The clear message is that the livestock industry we have now wont survive under a 20-day standstill."

Restricting movements of stock could see farms turn to more intensive and specialised agriculture, which runs contrary to government policy and public opinion, he adds.

Pinning a true cost to the 20-day rule is difficult, and industry stakeholders have scoffed at the results of a recent study commissioned by DEFRA. This put the gross cost at £15m-20m, which was scaled back to just £5m-7m when offset against the savings of having the rule. &#42

Rationalisation brings closure for Scottish auction marts

Rationalisation in the auction sector has continued in Scotland with the announcement this week that markets in Paisley and Kilmarnock will shut on July 31.

The move follows a decision by James Craig, which operates Ayr and Newton Stewart markets, and A & J Wilson, operators of Paisley and Kilmarnock, to join forces.

Mike Craig, financial director at Craig.Wilson, the new company, said: "Foot-and-mouth has been the fundamental cause of this. There has been noticeably less business since then. Ayr market is selling about 50% of prime cattle, compared with where it was.

"It makes sense to combine the two neighbouring areas together and reduce overheads and increase the catchment area and, hopefully, make a profit."

Both Paisley and Kilmarnock markets were in need of substantial investment as they were old market sites in land-locked and built up areas, he added.

The merger should allow the new company to cater for its main customer base in the area between the Clyde Estuary and the Solway Firth.

Willy Blair, secretary for the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, said that the move was regrettable as both were family-owned businesses. "But I think it speaks volumes for the sector that no markets have gone bust, since reopening after F&M. There are plenty of other businesses that would not have been able to withstand that."