18 February 2000

State cash hand outs galore set for French sheep men

By Philip Clarke

FRENCH sheep producers are set to benefit from a major cash injection following this weeks launch of a government action plan for the sector.

The new programme has three main aims – to correct the current income crisis, to improve economic efficiency and to encourage young farmers.

A major part of the strategy is to set up "territorial farming contracts" for all sheep producers, to reward them for maintaining the countryside. "The market does not remunerate farmers for this function," says the French ministry of agriculture in a statement.

Using money collected from larger farmers under the French modulation scheme, sheep producers will be able to claim about 22,500 francs (£2115) each in environmental payments for the next five years.

In addition, Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances for contracted farmers will be increased by 100 francs (£9.40) per livestock unit in the high mountain, (Alps/Pyrenees) and dry mountain (Massif Central) regions.

To boost efficiency and help young farmers, grants of between 100 francs (£9.40) and 200 francs (£18.80) an animal will be available to finance sheep housing. Producers will also be encouraged to develop quality marks to help differentiate their meat and dairy products, and there will be a programme for genetic improvements. Young farmers will benefit from preferential interest rates.

Government puts the total cost of these measures at about 200m francs (£18.8m), and insists they have been approved by Brussels.

The aid package follows a detailed study into the problems of the sheep sector, which shows incomes are less than 45% of the national average. The country as a whole is less than 50% self-sufficient following the departure of 15,000 producers and 350,000 sheep since 1993, it adds.

Producer representatives this side of the Channel have reacted with dismay. "This just shows how much better other member states are at finding ways around restrictions on state aids," said NFU livestock advisor, Kevin Pearce. "Our own sheep industry is in just as much trouble, having seen ewe premium fall at a time when sheep prices have fallen. Were already at a disadvantage to the French because of the weak euro. These latest subsidies tip the balance further."

But French producer organisations are also disappointed. "Insufficient and unacceptable" is how leading farmers union, the FNSEA, described the package.

"The plan makes use of a recycled budget, which resolves none of the problems of sheep production. We demand that the government takes immediate steps to restore (all) sheep producers incomes, paying up to 100 francs (£9.40) a ewe."