3 August 2001

NI/Eire sheep move imminent

By Philip Clarke

EXPORTS of live sheep from Northern Ireland to the Republic are expected to get under way next week, ending a five-month suspension due to foot-and-mouth.

Irish farm minister, Joe Walsh, signed the necessary legislation late last week, following concerted pressure from farming and government representatives in the north.

They had been angered that, even though Northern Ireland had been given permission by Brussels to resume live sheep exports from Jul 1, Dublin had continued to obstruct the trade. "It is unfortunate that a whole month has been lost while officials tried to sort out the protocols," said Ulster Farmers Union president, Douglas Rowe.

The UFU is concerned that, even though the ban has now been lifted, the conditions attached will make selling sheep to the south an onerous task.

For example, only finished lambs may be sent, going direct to a slaughterhouse. They must not have been on any GB holding since Feb 1, 2001 and must be identified with an individual and flock ear tag.

Farmers must apply to their divisional veterinary offices for a licence to export and arrange for a clinical inspection of their flocks. The DVO has to give the Irish authorities 72 hours notice before the sheep are sent.

They must enter the Republic through four designated border crossings and may only be taken into meat plants between 9am and 5pm on the day of slaughter.

Northern Ireland farm minister, Brid Rodgers, welcomed the breakthrough as "another step on the road to normal commercial farming activities". Traditionally, half of the provinces 1.5m lambs head south.

But the Meat and Livestock Commission believes it will do no more than put a floor in the market. It does not predict any rise in prices, which slipped another 10p to 210p/kg for top grade animals this week.

"With all the conditions, I expect to see a slow resumption of trade," said MLC economist, David Ritchie. Additionally, the incentive for southern buyers to take in northern lambs, pass them off as Irish, and claim the 4.3% VAT rebate has been removed with the introduction of individual sheep identification in June.

But Irish farmers view the resumption of trade with trepidation. "The price gap with the north is so great it can only put our market under pressure," said Ray Dunne of the Irish Cattle Traders and Stock Owners Association. This week, lamb in the Republic is at a 30-40p/kg premium.

The ICSA is critical of the Irish government for allowing any resumption of trade with any part of the UK, given the high incidence of F&M.

But the UFU is adamant that biosecurity in Northern Ireland is of the highest standard to prevent any livestock coming in from the GB mainland. "Our ports are well manned by the Department of Agriculture. Everything is checked rigorously," said sheep adviser, Ian Stevenson.