By Simon Wragg and Robert Davies

HUGE job losses have proved inevitable in UK meat export plants hit by the ban on overseas sales because of foot-and-mouth disease.

Many plants have closed their doors except to essential maintenance staff, while some have moved to shorter working weeks.

All acknowledge meat exports are unlikely to resume until late this year.

Richard Cawthorne, chief executive of Kent-based Invicta Lamb, is witnessing the meltdown of the business first-hand.

“We have been closed for five weeks and all our staff have been served with redundancy notices. Its very distressing.”

Other export plants, such as Cheale Meats in Brentwood, Essex, have tried to maintain throughputs by moving over to the welfare disposal scheme, although this has still meant shorter hours and some redundancies.

Terry Bayliss, chairman of Farmers First, says his company has been badly hit.

Fortunately, the 120,000/month charter on the ship Cap Afrique had almost lapsed and has not been renewed.

The Farmers Fresh abattoir at Kenilworth, Warkwickshire, is still operating, albeit on a day-by-day basis and with a skeleton staff, adds FFs Mike Gooding.

Until exports restart, Welsh mountain lamb producers face the biggest losses.

Abattoirs predict huge problems selling small lightweight lambs when they are ready to slaughter from July.

Exporters usually ship more than half the 4.3 million lambs bred in Wales each year.

Oriel Jones, whose Carmarthenshire abattoir exports 40% of its lamb kill, says prospects for the new season look bleak.

“We will have to compete to sell more on the home market, shaving off the last few p/kg to get a deal.

“Market conditions will be very tough for all producers, especially if bad weather continues to delay growth.”