19 November 1999

BEEF HOPES AT SCOTTISH

WINTER FAIR

Entries for this Wednesdays

Scottish Winter Fair are up,

and there are glimmers of

optimism among beef producers,

as Scottish correspondent

Shelley Wright reports

OF the stock on show at this years Scottish National Winter Fair, only beef cattle offer producers any glimmer of hope that the worst financial crisis to hit agriculture in living memory might be coming to an end, says Scottish NFU president Jim Walker.

Mr Walker, who runs suckler cows and sheep on 1200ha (3000 acres) at Drumbuie, Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, said finished cattle prices in Scotland had improved steadily in recent weeks. Trade for stores, too, was showing an upturn.

Scottish beef was also back on international markets, albeit in small quantities. "But its a start, and as long as we can get over the delaying tactics generated by the French and Germans then trade, we hope, will grow steadily," he said.

Changes to the EU beef regime under Agenda 2000 would also help underpin beef production in this country, although there remained concerns about how some of the details might be implemented, particularly changes to extensification payments.

Beef farmers, as well as those producing sheep and pigs, would, Mr Walker hoped, be helped by the current government-instigated review of meat inspection charges.

"There is certainly the scope there to make our industry more competitive. If you take, for example, the fact that cattle slaughter charges in Ireland, our biggest competitor, work out at £36 a beast less than in Scotland then it gives you an idea of the scale of the problem weve got."

In the sheep sector, however, there was little on the horizon to suggest things would improve markedly in the next year. "The loss of value of cull ewes has completely undermined the breeding sales this back-end," he said.

But he hoped that results of a long-running scientific study, due to be published in the spring, would show that BSE has not jumped to sheep. "Initial results look encouraging; there are no signs at the moment that we have a problem. Once the report is published then we must push very hard to get rid of the requirement to remove spinal cord from cull ewe carcasses going for export.

Slow process

"It will be a slow process, but until we can get these culls ewes away to Europe, particularly France, the breeding market will be held back."

Mr Walker also hoped that farm minister Ross Finnies recent appointment of international businessman Andrew Dewar-Durie to conduct a study of how lamb marketing might be improved would offer a way to help the industry differentiate Scottish lamb as a premium product.

Moving to the pig sector, Mr Walker said that government inaction over the past 18 months had been unbelievable. Politicians had sat on the sidelines watching the industry collapse.

"Some of the retailers, processors and caterers have got to share the blame for this demise," he added. Once a price differential opened between British pigmeat and that from other EU countries, buyers simply switched supplies.

"Price became an issue and all the work that the pig industry had done went out the window. Of all the sectors it is the one that has done everything and more that has been asked of it. Everything in terms of animal welfare, assurance and being responsive to the market. Yet it hasnt had the support from procurers that it deserves."