13 October 1995

Fewer lambs mean less cash, MPs are told by Exmoor man

By John Burns

HIGHER lamb prices will not compensate Exmoor farmers for lower lambing percentages this year.

Somerset farmer Andrew Hawkins of Warren Farm, Simonsbath, told Conservative MPs Tom King (Bridgwater) and David Nicholson (Taunton) that this year and last his 1200 mainly Exmoor Horn ewes had averaged one lamb a ewe at weaning. The normal figure was 1.15.

"The reason prices are higher this autumn is the lambs are just not there. But with fewer lambs to sell, the total income will be down."

Although his farm had suffered less from drought than others, he faced substantial extra costs for away-wintering 350 hoggs and 35 suckler cows. "The silage alone will cost more than we normally pay for feed, bedding, housing and work put together."

Bedding straw was £5/t dearer, and his requirement would increase following the erection of a new building this autumn. "MAFF has made it quite clear that if we damage the swards by outwintering and feeding, we will lose our subsidies, including HLCAs, ewe and cow premiums."

Costlier outlays

Mr Hawkins added that being in the Exmoor National Park he had to meet more expensive building and landscaping specifications. Without mains electricity his power costs were above average. His travel costs were also higher.

Somerset farmer Jim White preferred to concentrate his comments on the fundamental principle of maintaining the hill economy. He referred the MPs to a study of changes in west Somerset agriculture over the past 10 years. There were fewer farm jobs and fewer livestock.

That was proof the less favoured area (LFA) system was not working. "Why are UK HLCAs so far below the maximum permitted level?" he asked.

Brian Stephens from Cutcombe said hill farmers accepted the weather hazards. HLCAs were meant to compensate for harsher conditions than in the lowlands. They should never have been cut and should now be restored.

Brian Dallyn from the Devon end of Exmoor sought reassurance from the MPs that government was committed to supporting viable farming in the hills in the long term. Young people were already showing signs of not wanting to follow their parents into farming.

Mr King confirmed his governments commitment to various forms of support for hill farmers, but warned: "That does not mean a blank cheque."

Both he and Mr Nicholson felt the public could more readily identify with problems caused by the weather than points of principle about the future of hill farming.