28 June 2002

On-the-hoof sheep on road back to Europe

By Andrew Shirley

L AMBS on the hoof will soon be making their way back to Europe for the first time since foot-and-mouth brought the trade to a standstill last year.

Brindie, the operations arm of Farmers Ferry, which transported up to 1.2m lambs a year before the outbreak, has pencilled in an initial shipment for early August. Live exports accounted for about 5% of total UK output before the disease, but chief executive, David Owen, says initial consignments will be significantly smaller than the 13,000 animals carried by the organisations regular ship, the Cap Afrique.

"This will be a walk-on walk-off vessel with a capacity of 3500-4000 lambs, although we can easily lay on bigger boats if required. At the moment we just dont know how many sheep are out there."

But he is confident that numbers will build quickly. "Due to the mild lambing season a lot of upland light lambs have survived. It is difficult to predict numbers, but there seems to be any amount of demand from the EU."

Peter Hardwick, Brussels-based export manager with the Meat and Livestock Commission, confirms that there should be plenty of buyers in France once the live trade resumes. "There was, is, and always will be an interest, especially as the market was not really replaced during F&M.

"There tends to be excess capacity at French abattoirs that the industry is keen to fill, especially as availability of their own lambs tends to tail off in the second half of the year."

Senior MLC economic analyst Tony Fowler reckons the prospect of live shipments is good news for producers, as it should remove surplus from the home market, and will coincide with the period when UK lamb values start to trend downwards. "The fact that the k has been gaining against the £ could also have an influence by making British lamb more attractive abroad," he adds.

National Sheep Association chief executive, John Thorley, also welcomed the move. "It is bound to help because there has been a tendency for the deadweight system to really dominate pricing. This should allow the pricing structure to get back to some form of normality."

But Mr Thorley warned that it was vital that those involved in the trade adhered strictly to all the welfare and biosecurity regulations. "People must be more aware than ever of antagonising those who would like to see this business stopped."

Not everybody in the industry believes the effect will be positive. Welsh abattoir owner and carcass exporter Owen Owen, of Cig Mon group, believes live lamb exports could depress farmgate prices. "I am not worried about the competition, but is it coincidence that whenever these exports start the price goes down?"

Mr Owen says he does not accept that carcass and live exports serve different markets abroad. "They are competing for the same trade. The ultimate customer is the housewife and is she now going to buy twice as much lamb?"

But Kevin Pearce, livestock adviser at the NFU, disagrees. "There is no evidence to suggest that prices come down because of live exports. It is a very important part of the trade that deals with a specific product." &#42