By Jeremy Hunt, north-west England correspondent

CONTINGENCY plans must be put in place for the north of Englands major autumn sheep breeding sales to avoid serious disruption to next years sheep breeding cycle.

The impact of the foot-and-mouth crisis could mean millions of breeding sheep from north country farms having to change hands by private transaction, say Mule breeders and auctioneers.

Jeremy Eaton, auctioneer at Skipton Auction Mart in North Yorkshire, describes the prospect of having to link buyers and sellers as a “mind-boggling job”.

But he realises that it will be the only way to ensure that the effects of foot-and-mouth are not allowed to undermine the sheep sectors recovery.

The Skipton mart is already working on a trading framework to link buyers and sellers of breeding sheep and it is expected that other auctioneers will follow.

But there is also concern over tupping dates. If buyers were allowed to re-stock at the end of the year, and tups were not turned out into ewe flocks until December or January, there would be a delayed lambing.

This would cause further upset to the following sheep year and inevitably mean farmers would not earn any income until late in 2002.