26 March 1999

Hill mens fury

at parks slur

at hill slur

By James Garner

and Johann Tasker

A LEADING government adviser has outraged hill farmers by suggesting they should concentrate on park-keeping rather than farming because their sheep produce low quality meat.

Mike Roper, a MAFF meat trade adviser, said hill farmers should become environmental managers of the uplands rather than being an integral part of Britains sheep industry.

"Genes from hill flocks are causing problems with meat quality," Mr Roper told the British Society of Animal Science conference at Scarborough.

"It may be that the most appropriate production for hill sheep would be managing the environment. A partial restructuring of the industry would see hill lambs as a by-product of hill-environment management and not part of efficient lamb production."

Only 20-40% of hill lambs are fit for the market, he claimed.

Mr Roper stopped short of saying hill farmers should become non-farming custodians of the hills. But he did say that producers could no longer expect to be subsidised to produce copious amounts of lamb.

Taxpayers have "some say in this area as hill sheep production is heavily subsidised," said Mr Roper.

Declining subsidies and requirements to provide taxpayers with greater value for money would see a reduction in hill sheep stocking rates, he added.

John Jackson, a Cumbrian hill farmer who has sent 500 sheep to lowland Somerset every year for the past 14 years, said Mr Roper had failed to understand the vital role of hill farmers.

"If there werent any sheep in the hills, there wouldnt be any sheep in the lowlands," he said.

Peter Allen, chairman of the NFU hill farming committee, also reacted angrily. "If Mr Roper wants lawnmowers, then fine," he said. "But to get those lawnmowers you need a sensible breeding programme and every responsible farmer has one of those."

Mr Allen, who farms on the edge of the Lake District, said hill farmers maintained one of the most extensive and environmentally-friendly farming systems in the country.

"You cant turn a hill sheep into a fat pig on the top of Helvellyn," he said.

John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said it was totally unacceptable for MAFF officials to make statements aimed at "fundamentally destroying" the structure of the British sheep industry.