25 December 1998

Export boost despite heavy

storms

It divided the farming

community, enraged animal

welfare campaigners and

was condemned by junior

farm minister Elliot Morley.

Johann Tasker reports on

the first year of the Farmers

Ferry which was anything but plain sailing

AFTER four days, even the most hardened hill farmers can find the Smithfield Show too much to bear. The shows latest victim is Stewart Morris, one of the five directors of Farmers Ferry, who has exhaustedly left the hubbub of Earls Court a day early to return to the quieter green pastures of Wales.

Mr Morris colleagues on the Farmers Ferry stand appear jovial but tired as they drink coffee and chat to passers-by. After all, persuading farmers to part with £100 to fund the export of live sheep is not easy when farm incomes are at their lowest level since the 1930s.

Company secretary David Owen has had an especially busy schedule. Seven months travelling the country to explain the merits of boosting the export trade have ended in fielding questions from inquisitive farmers and preparing for a potentially hostile meeting with farm minister Nick Brown.

"Im only a boy from the village," says Mr Owen. "Before this year Id never stood up and given a speech before."

That all changed in January when five men had tentatively discussed the problems facing Britains beleaguered livestock industry. The price of sheep was at rock bottom, the market was drastically oversupplied and buyers were few and far between.

Mr Owen and Mr Morris, together with farmers Terry Bayliss, John Lloyd and Glyn Jones, soon concluded that the absence of domestic demand for sheep could be at least partially offset if more animals were sold abroad. A small-scale ferry operation was already operating at a profit. The men decided that a similar initiative run at cost price would encourage sheep exports – if only they could raise the money to subsidise shipments.

Farmers Ferry was launched in May. Its remit was to raise £1.3m from donations from sheep producers and fund a non-profit making roll-on roll-off ferry service which would carry thousands of sheep from Dover to Dunkirk

Animal welfare campaigners were outraged. The last thing they wanted was the resurgence of a trade which they had all but halted in 1995 when the major ferry companies stopped exporting livestock following mass quayside protests. "If the Farmers Ferry is the agricultural lifeline for the future, then surely there is no future," said Philip Lymbery, spokesman for Compassion in World Farming.

Opposition also came from less expected quarters. Within days of the projects launch, Barclays Bank back-tracked on plans to open a bank account for Farmers Ferry, fearing that its staff would become targets for animal rights activists. In a stiffly-worded statement, Barclays laid its cards on the table: "Reaction to recent publicity given to our consideration of this request has caused concern and led us to hold discussions with the police and with the Royal Mail in relation to security issues," it said.

The NFU also distanced itself from the project. It feared Farmers Ferry would scupper behind-the-scenes attempts to persuade the major ferry companies to restart the export trade on a more low-key level.

Initially, even sheep farmers appeared reluctant to donate money. One wished the project all the best but voiced concern that farmer-run companies hardly had a major success record.

There was also the knowledge that any resurgence of the live export trade would be met with protests from welfare campaigners. But things eventually looked up. At the Royal Show in July, the ferrymen were greeted with a cautious enthusiasm.

"We know were laying ourselves open to protesters if we start up live exports again," said one Welsh sheep producer, "But what else can we do?".

Funds were slowly but surely secured. Richard Livsey became the first MP publicly to back the initiative, describing it as a "brave" attempt to save the sheep industry. "Nobody can claim that farmers are not trying to help themselves," he said.

But every politician who voiced support for Farmers Ferry, it seemed there were two who wanted to see it sink. Gwyn Prosser, the Labour MP for Dover, and Mark Watts, the Labour MEP for Kent East joined hundreds of protesters in a demonstration against its maiden voyage in August.

The ship sailed anyway. Then after weeks of calm, Farmers Ferry scored a spectacular own goal by denying a MAFF welfare inspector access to their ship as it prepared to set sail in heavy seas.

Junior farm minister Elliot Morley was outraged.

"I find the lack of co-operation from the operators of the Farmers Ferry extraordinary and deplorable, especially in view of the ferry operators professed adherence to high animal welfare standards," Mr Morley said.

Mr Owen declines to comment on the incident. There are other things he wont be drawn on either. "We dont want to talk about that," he says when asked how much Farmers Ferry paid to gain control of their ship.

He also refuse to comment on the live export ban faced by the ferrys biggest customer who was recently found guilty of mistreating livestock.

But Mr Owen does have some numbers of his own which, he says, speak for themselves. By the end of this month, year-on-year live sheep exports will have climbed to 500,000 from 435,000 in 1997. The money, Mr Owen says, is worth about £1m a week to Britains sheep farmers. Not a bad return on the £800,000 donated by more than 6500 livestock producers, he adds.