Ewe premium blow will hurt early lambers most
By Philip Clarke
MAFFs decision to do away with the first claim and retention period for ewe premium will deal a heavy blow to sheep producers.
Most affected will be those with early lambing flocks who have traditionally looked to sell their cull ewes in late March, to catch the tail-end of the winter market.
They will now have to hang on to surplus stock until late May, running up costs at the same time as cull ewe values are falling in anticipation of a flooded market in early summer.
A more immediate effect could be felt this autumn, as the new rules will also take many dairy farmers out of the "flying flock" business. It will no longer be practical for them to buy in sheep if they have to hold on to them until May to qualify for ewe premium.
It will also undermine the viability of "dry sheep" systems.
The MAFF "consultation" comes just three-and-a-half months before the first claim period was due to start. In the document, MAFF explains that its "decision" to move to a single period has been forced upon it by the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund, which controls the purse strings in Brussels.
The EAGGF has been concerned for a long time that the operation of two periods in Great Britain provides an opportunity for fraud. And even though there is no evidence of double payment occurring on a significant scale, the mere fact the EAGGF is dissatisfied gives it an excuse to withhold all sheep premium payments.
Action needed now
"Unless action is taken now to move to a single retention period…it is inevitable that we shall suffer disallowance, at least in respect of payments made for 1993 and possibly 1994 as well," says MAFF.
Since most applications are made in the second period, MAFF is proposing the new single claim period should run from Dec 4 to Feb 4, followed by the mandatory 100-day retention period from Feb 5 to May 14. Producer bodies are invited to suggest alternative dates.
Industry reaction to the MAFF dictate has been hostile. "This will seriously disrupt established marketings and has severe implications for those who normally sell stock at the end of the first period," said NFU Less Favoured Areas committee chairman, Tim Bennett. "If we have to change, then at the very least we should be given a year to adjust."
John Thorley of the National Sheep Association said it would consult all its members, but it seemed the only thing open for discussion was the date of the new single period.
• The EAGGF has also complained about the inadequacy of flock records. As such, MAFF is preparing new legislation. "In future, farmers claiming sheep annual premium who cannot produce a flock record showing the required information at inspection, will lose all their payments even if the inspector is completely satisfied that the animals on which premium is claimed are actually present at the time," it says.