30 August 2002

Quota buy-up sparks aid fears

By Isabel Davies

PLANS to preserve some of Englands most picturesque landscapes by reducing sheep numbers have met claims that farmers will risk losing future support payments.

A ground-breaking initiative will pay farmers in upland areas to reduce their stocking levels for five years. Ministers believe the Sheep Quota Purchase Scheme will improve the sustainability of sheep farming by reducing numbers to stop overgrazing in the hills.

English Nature, the governments conservation adviser, said it could be "knocking on a few doors" asking farmers to give the scheme their full consideration. Producers in Sites of Special Scientific Interest in north-east England would be targeted in an attempt to get them to sign up, suggested a spokesman.

But industry leaders urged farmers to think about their future as well as their immediate situation. NFU livestock committee chairman Les Armstong said they should remember that Brussels is considering paying farmers a single annual aid cheque based on the amount of support received in an as-yet-unspecified reference year.

"If we are moving to one farm payment, we dont know what the reference year is going to be," Mr Armstrong told farmers weekly. "At a time when there are such poor returns, all of us are trying to reshape our businesses. But there are too many unknowns out there."

Consultants agreed. Prod- ucers could be locking themselves into a future pattern of production which could be detrimental, warned Richard King of Andersons. It might suit someone to change their system now but others could be shooting themselves in the foot, he added.

John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said farmers who were approached must consider the full business implications of reducing stocking rates. Farmers would be asked to attach a value to each unit of quota, based on the potential premium foregone over five years and overall income foregone.

But a reduction in the size of the national flock and decreases in production elsewhere meant prospects for sheep were looking better and this had to be factored in, said Mr Thorley. Price averaged £37/head at the recent Lairg sale compared with £26/head in 1999.

The scheme had little point and showed a lack of understanding about the whole industry, claimed Mr Thorley. The scheme has a total fund of just £2m. If farmers tender £100/ewe it will remove only 20,000 sheep. At £150/ewe this will fall to just 13,300 which is less than 0.01% of Englands national flock of 15.3m sheep.

QUOTA BUY-UP SCHEME

Aim is to reduce sheep in overgrazed areas

Stocking rates must be reduced

Tender period runs until end of October

Low bids with high environmental gain likely to succeed

QUOTA BUY-UP SCHEME

&#8226 Aim is to reduce sheep in overgrazed areas

&#8226 Stocking rates must be reduced

&#8226 Tender period runs until end of October

&#8226 Low bids with high environmental gain likely to succeed