10 September 1999

Ewe cull scheme

on the cards…

By Isabel Davies

GOVERNMENT ministers have confirmed they are considering a national ewe disposal scheme. But any return of the calf processing scheme still seems unlikely.

After three-hours of talks in London on Wed, farm minister Nick Brown and his counterparts from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said they hoped to put plans for the ewe cull to the EU Commission next week.

To win commission approval, and avoid any accusations of illegal state aids, any scheme would have to be based on animal welfare grounds. For that reason, the most likely outcome seems to be a government-funded and co-ordinated disposal scheme which pays farmers nothing but ensures that they can dispose of cast ewes at slaughterhouses, rather than having to face the prospect of shooting them.

The ministers also announced that they had agreed to look at the possibility of some replacement for the calf processing scheme. Mr Brown, however, remained sceptical, warning that there were "formidable difficulties".

Before the meeting, Scottish and Welsh farm ministers Ross Finnie and Christine Gwyther had both said they were prepared to consider introducing their own calf and ewe schemes if no UK agreement could be reached.

On Wed afternoon they said they still could not rule out the possibility of going it alone but, for the moment, they had agreed to work together.

Mr Brown added that the ministers had also agreed to look at the legislation governing specified risk material removal in the sheep sector. The current rules have hampered the export of ewe carcasses in particular.

Ian Gardiner, NFU deputy director general, welcomed the ministers commitment to work together. "Its one country and it would be ludicrous if ministers had decided to go alone. It didnt make any sense at all," he said.

But he added that the union was conscious that time was tight and some quick fixes were needed. A clear statement of government intentions was needed by the time of the Labour Party Conference later this month, he said.

Following the ministerial meeting, Mr Brown had been expected to address a meeting of the NFUs policy committee. That was cancelled at the last minute.

Although disappointed, a spokesman said the NFU recognised that the priority had to be for Mr Brown to continue his discussions with colleagues.

Meanwhile, MAFF officials are putting together plans for a new government-industry working group.

The initiative followed five-hours of talks between farming unions and Mr Brown at the end of last week. The aim of the working group will be to review the current state of the agricultural industry and produce solutions to the numerous problems.