Sheep farmers will need specific, targeted aid in the event of a no-deal Brexit if they are to survive the loss of markets and the potential drop in support, visitors to this week’s Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth were told.
In the same week that the party committed to revoke Article 50 and call a halt to Brexit should it be returned to government in a general election, Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael warned that upland farmers were especially at risk.
“For farmers in my community – and we produce beef in Orkney and lambs in Shetland – the export market is enormously important,” he said.
“If you leave on a no-deal Brexit, the tariff consequences for a community that is already disadvantaged by distance from the market and is working on extremely tight margins will be to squeeze them beyond the point which is feasible.”
NFU deputy president Guy Smith agreed that a no-deal Brexit was “at best risky, at worse catastrophic”.
But the threat is very real and, should the UK stumble into no deal at the end of October, then a number of actions are essential.
“First, the no-deal tariff schedule which was laid down in March is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed, with proper protection for certain key parts of British agriculture,” Mr Smith told an NFU fringe meeting in Bournemouth on Monday (16 September).
“We are also clear that the sheep sector will need some sort of emergency, instant relief or headage payment, otherwise it is heading for meltdown.”
Lib Dem councillor Paul Crossley from Somerset expressed concern that, in the event of no deal, there was a danger of large quantities of lamb having to be destroyed, given the sudden loss of markets.
NFU Cymru deputy president Aled Jones said the lack of freezer space available nationally meant this threat was real, but unacceptable. He stressed the need for government to keep trade open – especially at a time of year when significant quantities of Welsh hill lambs were ready for market.
NFU Scotland vice-president Martin Kennedy agreed direct aid was needed to keep hill farmers on the land, not least to maintain the distinctive upland landscape.
He added that the devolved administrations needed sufficient flexibility post Brexit to devise support policies appropriate for their farmers.
“What might be the right thing to do for England might not necessarily be the right thing for Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland,” he said.
Mr Smith said the NFU accepted the realities of devolution and the fact different parts of the UK had different topographies and different needs.
“But we wouldn’t want to see too much disparity in policy across the UK, because we recognise the problems it creates.”