Sheep crisis: farm leaders meet minister

NFU leaders are meeting farm minister David Heath to discuss the crisis facing sheep farmers.

NFU livestock chairman Charles Sercombe and the union’s chief livestock adviser Peter Garbutt are meeting Mr Heath on Tuesday (5 February).

Topics for discussion will include the twin challenges of Schmallenberg virus and the collapse in lamb prices, which have fallen to their lowest level for three years.

Although DEFRA describes Schmallenberg as a low-impact disease, many individual farms with early lambing flocks have experienced higher-than-normal losses due to the virus.

At the same time, lamb prices have hit their lowest level for three years.

The meeting with Mr Heath comes after more than 100 farmers gathered at Hereford livestock market on Monday (4 February) to discuss the prospects for spring lambing.

Schmallenberg virus, which also affects cattle, has spread across England and Wales to the Scottish border region and has now been confirmed on more than 1,000 UK farms.

One farmer with 92 ewes had 132 lambs born, of which 46 were deformed – an infection rate of 35%, vet Dominic Alexander told farmers at Hereford.

Without an effective vaccine, Schmallenberg would keep circulating, he added.

Some farmers are reporting what seems like delayed symptoms of Schmallenberg virus, with apparently healthy newborn lambs becoming listless after a few days and then dying.

Meanwhile, an influx of New Zealand lamb into the UK has seen sheep prices tumble, with producers losing in the region of £29 an animal.

Much of the New Zealand lamb is higher-value chilled cuts rather than whole frozen carcasses, said Clive Brown, senior regional manager with EBLEX.

“By far and away our biggest provider of imports is New Zealand,” he said. Imported chilled cuts were being sold cheaply and undercutting English lamb prices.

The challenges facing farmers are attracting the interest of the wider media, with sheep producer Elwyn Maddy interviewed by BBC Midlands Today live from Hereford.

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