Concerns raised over 20-day standstill plan
By Alistair Driver
THE sheep industry that drags itself out of the ashes of the foot-and-mouth crisis will operate in a very different way to the one that stumbled into it if farm minister Nick Brown has anything to do with it.
Mr Brown blames the dramatic spread of the virus on multiple movements of infected sheep through markets before movement restrictions were imposed on Feb 20.
To ensure it does not happen again, he proposed a "20-day standstill" on the movement of sheep, goats and cattle on Tuesday (Mar 27) in the House of Commons.
The system is already in place in the pig industry and a similar requirement for sheep would have significantly slowed down the spread of the virus, according to Mr Brown. He has also promised to look at reform of other livestock industry issues, such as the operation of markets and traceability, to reduce disease risk.
If the 20-day standstill is introduced following industry consultation, sheep producers may no longer be able to rely on markets and dealers to find a home for their stock.
Since the rule was introduced into the pig sector in the 1970s, relatively small numbers of pigs have been traded at markets. The industry has also seen a significant move to fewer and larger operations.
"Pig farmers were forced to think more about where their meat went," said National Pig Association chairman James Black.
Sheep dealers would no longer be able to buy lambs from one market, sell some to a local abattoir and take the rest back to their farm before offloading the rest at another market. And live sheep exporters would not be able to take lambs from different markets back to the farm for sorting and identification before sending them off to the Continent.
Herefordshire exporter Kevin Feakins fears the role of exporters could be finished because transport laws ban the movement of lambs from markets straight to the ferry.
Between 40-45% of sheep farmers already send their fattened sheep direct to abattoirs. More will have to do so if the 20-day standstill comes in, but this would not be financially viable for many with small flocks on the remote hills of Britain.
They are the ones who rely on dealers to find the right buyer for their stock. This may be an abattoir on the other side of the country.
One solution could be the use of collection centres at markets, from which sheep sorted into relevant types could be transported to abattoirs. Either way sheep farmers may have to look increasingly towards collaborative marketing to increase their leverage against the big abattoir and supermarket buyers.
National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley said the extensive nature of many sheep farms means the specification of each weeks stock is largely determined by the environment. This makes it difficult to guarantee the right product in contract arrangements with single buyers.
The sheep industry is, therefore, unlikely to go down the same route as the pig industry, he predicted.
Markets play a crucial role in guiding sheep deadweight prices and without them many farmers will be powerless, he said. "Many would leave the industry."
The scheme is unworkable anyway, according to Mr Thorley, because the whole UK sheep flock would have to be individually tagged which is "impossible".
It is not yet clear whether Mr Brown intends to halt the movement of all sheep from a particular flock when a new animal comes on to the holding.
This would create havoc when a farmer returns from market without having sold his sheep and when new rams are introduced to the flock at tupping time, said Mr Thorley. *