18 February 2000
Dismay at handouts to French sheep men

By Philip Clarke

NEWS that French sheep farmers are to receive a major cash boost from their government has been received with dismay in Britain.

Under the FF200 million (18.8m) French government initiative, sheep farmers can claim environmental payments and may be eligible for increased Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances.

Grants for sheep housing, assistance in developing quality marks, a programme for genetic improvements, and preferential interest rates are also included in the package.

Farming leaders in Britain say this could tip the balance even further against British producers already disadvantaged by the strength of the Pound against the Euro.

“This just shows how much better other member states are at finding ways around restrictions on state aids,” said National Farmers Union livestock advisor Kevin Pearce.

“Our own sheep industry is in just as much trouble, having seen ewe premium fall at a time when sheep prices have fallen.

Were already at a disadvantage to the French because of the weak Euro. These latest subsidies tip the balance further.”

The new programme has three main aims – to correct the current income crisis, to improve economic efficiency and to encourage young farmers.

A major part of the strategy is to set up “territorial farming contracts” for all sheep producers, to reward them for maintaining the countryside.

“The market does not remunerate farmers for this function,” says the French ministry of agriculture in a statement.

Using money collected from larger farmers under the French modulation scheme, sheep producers will be able to claim about FF22,500 (2115) each in environmental payments for the next five years.

In addition, Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances for contracted farmers will be increased by FF100 (9.40) per livestock unit in the high mountain, (Alps/Pyrenees) and dry mountain (Massif Central) regions.

To boost efficiency and help young farmers, grants of between FF100 (9.40) and FF200 francs an animal will be available to finance sheep housing.

Producers will also be encouraged to develop quality marks to help differentiate their meat and dairy products, and there will be a programme for genetic improvements.

Young farmers will benefit from preferential interest rates.

The French government insists these have been approved by Brussels.

The aid package follows a detailed study into the problems of the sheep sector, which shows incomes are less than 45% of the national average.

The country as a whole is less than 50% self-sufficient following the departure of 15,000 producers and 350,000 sheep since 1993, it adds.

However, French producer organisations are disappointed with the package.

“Insufficient and unacceptable” is how leading farmers union the FNSEA described the package.

“The plan makes use of a recycled budget, which resolves none of the problems of sheep production.

“We demand that the government takes immediate steps to restore all sheep producers incomes, paying up to FF100 (9.40) a ewe.”