12 October 1999
Port action to hit sheep trade?

by Johann Tasker

FEARS are growing that French farmers could retaliate when British livestock producers blockade the port of Plymouth this evening against French imports.

Up to 500 livestock producers are expected to blockade the port of Plymouth this evening in an attempt to prevent French produce from entering the country.

But British exporters have warned that the protest could result in French farmers taking similar action against shipments of British sheep to France.

Farmers from Devon and Cornwall plan to prevent French lorries disembarking at Plymouth in protest against the French ban on imports of British beef.

“We will stop French produce coming in,” said Richard Haddock, chairman of Devon National Farmers Union.

“The problem is that if we give in and roll over now, our exports are finished because there is so much at stake. Weve got a lot more to gain than to lose.”

British producers had no dispute with French farmers and hauliers but would be venting their anger at Frances continuing ban on British beef, said Mr Haddock.

But the Farmers Ferry company, which exports British sheep to France, warned that the Plymouth port blockade might spark retaliatory action from the French.

Mike Gooding, spokesman for Farmers Ferry, said: “If you look at history, one would conclude that retaliation would be almost inevitable.”

French farmers and hauliers could retaliate “within hours”, Mr Gooding said, because they were so well organised and had blockaded British exports before.

During one blockade by French lorry drivers during 1996, the Freight Transport Association estimated that £10 million-worth of perishable goods were lost.

British hauliers exporting sheep were warned they could be prosecuted if the animals suffered after being delayed by the French lorry driver protest.

At one point during the 1996 dispute, it was estimated that more than 11,000 sheep, loaded on 23 carriers near Dover, were waiting to cross the Channel.

That dispute was ignited by French claims that expensive fuel and European Union laws restricting drivers hours were threatening hauliers livelihoods.

A MAFF spokeswoman at the time told The Daily Telegraph: “Animals still need to be fed and watered at regular intervals and that could be a problem in France.”

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers Union, said today he understood why British farmers were now planning to blockade Plymouth against French imports.

There was “utter anger and frustration that the French seem to be able to wish to ignore European law” he said, before warning that the protest could backfire.

“We must be very careful,” he told BBC Radio 4s Farming Today programme.

“We must not arrive at situation where we incite a situation in France, as we have substantial sheep exports to think of as well.”