Battle to safeguard sheep
By Johann Tasker
THE uproar was phenomenal. Within days of the BBCs decision to axe One Man and His Dog, thousands of letters from angry viewers poured in from across the country.
The shows presenter, Robin Page, delivered the letters to BBC Television Centre. He accused the BBC of "dumbing down" and ignoring the rural community for the sake of viewers.
"Its obviously potty because the BBC is meant to be a public service broadcaster," Mr Page told farmers weekly this week.
One Man and His Dog appears to have won a reprieve – for the time being at least. The BBC has agreed to screen a special episode at Christmas before deciding whether it has enough viewers to film a future series.
But now the sheep, rather than the dogs, are under threat. Producers claim that government plans to reduce livestock subsidies and instead pay hill farmers to look after the environment will des- troy the structure of the industry.
Official statistics show lamb and mutton production has boomed over the past 20 years, despite a drop in domestic demand which has seen consumption fall by half (see graph). MAFF advisers argue that reducing sheep support is all the more vital if lamb is to compete with reduced beef prices emanating from reform of the common agricultural policy.
"We are pressing for a reduction in the support price for the sheepmeat sector," said a MAFF departmental report released last week.
CAP reform also threatens to spell the end for the hill livestock compensation allowance scheme which pays farmers up to £8.88 a year for each of their sheep. The intention is to revise the scheme and link environmental conditions to subsidies which will be paid on the area farmed, rather than livestock numbers.
The clearest indication yet of the governments plans came last week. Mike Roper, a meat trade adviser for MAFF, suggested that hill farmers should consider becoming environmental managers rather than meat producers.
"It may be that the most appropriate production for hill sheep would be managing the environment," he told delegates to the British Society of Animal Science conference at Scarborough.
Mr Ropers statement was welcomed by environmental campaigners who claim that paying farmers for keeping sheep encourages over-stocking on some of the most sensitive upland areas of the country.
But the suggestion outraged sheep industry leaders. Mr Roper should be "considering his position," said John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association.
"I have never known a MAFF official to publicly discuss a personal view which is so at variance with sheep industry thinking."
MAFF officials denied accusations that Mr Ropers statement was carefully scripted to gauge farmer-reaction ahead of a more official announcement. But some are privately pleased that the idea of a major review of the sheep sector is out in the open without it being initiated by the government.
Meanwhile, Mr Thorley is fuming. This week he cancelled a holiday to request a meeting with farm minister Nick Brown. And it looks like he will fight as hard for the sheep industry as Mr Page has for his TV show. *