2 November 2001

Industry fingers crossed for sheep export restart

By James Garner

SHEEP exports will be back on the agenda of the standing veterinary committee again next week.

The industry is keeping everything crossed that shipments will be allowed to resume, even though trading will be constrained by tight rules.

Similar proposals from Scotland, and England and Wales were rejected at the last meeting of the SVC in the face of concerted opposition from France, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands.

"It is very finely balanced and could go either way," said a UK government source in Brussels. "Scientifically we have a strong case, but this thing has become highly political."

If the restriction is lifted it would initially be for the same 33 counties which are currently allowed to export beef – those that have never had a case of F&M. It is not clear what proportion of the national sheep flock these would represent, as there is little information on the numbers of sheep culled in all counties this year, says the Meat and Livestock Commission.

John Thorley, head of the National Sheep Association, said a breakthrough would be a "positive boost" to the industry, allowing exports from large areas of Scotland, parts of East Anglia and the south, and some of Wales. "It is excellent news and frankly it proves that DEFRA is doing a good job for us."

Farmers First, the lamb export and processing business, is gearing up to export lambs as soon as the trade resumes.

"The price on the Continent is very high at the moment. We would see a full order book, which is encouraging," says the groups marketing manager Mike Gooding. "There will be a logistical challenge, but the demand is there."

Stiff regulations mean a slow start is likely, says Neil Stoddart, president of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers. "If there is any repetition of what has happened with pork, the devil will be in the detail. Even if the SVC approves lamb exports, it could still be several weeks before exports get underway."

Other problems lie ahead, too, says Jane Connor, MLC sheep economist. Frances unilateral decision to impose a ban on spinal cord in lambs over six months old comes into force next year, and this will cause some disruption to trade in the first quarter of 2002.

Meanwhile, the light lamb buy-up scheme, introduced by government in September to prevent a welfare crisis, closed at the start of this week. Farmers have pledged just over 600,000 lambs, far lower than the 1m light lambs expected.

"I am not overly perturbed by the shortfall," says Mrs Connor. "It is 600,000 lambs that have not come on to the market and undermined it further."

Lamb prices picked up slightly this week to 150-155p/kg deadweight, as supplies tightened, she adds. &#42