13 August 1999

Poor prices will bankrupt hill men

WELSH farming leaders claim that poor autumn sale prices will bankrupt many hill farmers.

Speaking at the Anglesey Show, Bob Parry, Farmers Union of Wales president, described the 70p/kg early week lamb price as a disaster that threatened to trigger far reaching structural and social changes in farming.

Traditional small family farms faced their worst crisis in living memory and he feared that many would be pushed over the brink during the key autumn marketing period.

"Farming the 80% of land in Wales designated as less favoured could become dominated by a small number of ranch type units, with serious repercussions for the landscape and rural communities," warned Mr Parry.

He was deeply worried about both the low returns for finished stock and the implications for the crucial autumn sales of stores and breeding animals. Cull ewes were already valueless.

Economic madness

"One member recently received £11.79 for 105 cull ewes after market deductions," he reported. "This sort of economic madness is just one of many signs of approaching catastrophe. The sheep industry simply cannot be sustained by the current low level of income."

Hugh Richards, president of NFU Cymru-Wales, warned that, because agriculture was the economic cornerstone of rural communities, the dramatic fall in farming incomes had affected all rural businesses.

"I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the beef and sheep sectors are in a meltdown situation, and other sectors are in deep trouble," he said.

Though rain has eased the grass shortage that reduced early demand for store lambs, the unpredictability of winter prime lamb prices, which left many finishers with burned fingers last season, is making buyers cautious.

While cull ewes continue to sell at prices that barely cover marketing charges, hill farmers who offer tens of thousands of halfbred breeding ewes at special autumn sales are concerned that customers will try to reduce their replacement rates.

Prices at some centres fell £20 a head last autumn and organisers admit privately that things could get worse.