Sheep farmers pay a high price for cheap food

2 March 2001

Sheep farmers pay a high price for cheap food

By John Thorley

NSA chief executive

A MIX of stunned horror and disbelief greeted last weeks news that foot-and-mouth had again hit Britain.

As the story unravelled, each step took on a new significance and each phone call reflected the concerns of those who had been there before, and the apprehension of those who had merely heard about it.

It all culminated in an industry meeting presided over jointly by farm minister, Nick Brown, and Baroness Hayman. Key player was MAFFs chief vet, Jim Scudamore, who explained a few salient facts.

The outbreak, originally identified at Cheales abattoir in Essex, appeared to have its origins at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Tyne and Wear, and it seemed that it had been on that farm for some weeks without anyone considering that there was something amiss.

The consequence is that it spread to cattle on a farm close by and, as stock had been traded through nearby markets, the disease found its way to the West Country and into the heart of the livestock areas.

Supported by the entire industry, Mr Brown declared a seven-day standstill on all livestock movements effective from 5pm on Feb 23. Coming on the back of the trading hiatus caused by the BSE crisis in 1996, and from which the industry is only just recovering, nobody needed foot-and-mouth.

It has interrupted trade with Europe at a time of year when we had been seeing a steady export of carcasses and live sheep. While ewe prices the day before trade stopped were relatively buoyant, lambs were knocked back from 125p/kg to under 85p/kg at markets.

Put this against the fact that more than 100p/kg is needed by most sheep farmers to cover costs, let alone make a profit, and you get some understanding of the scale of the problem.

It will be interesting to see what happens when trading restarts, although the blanket ban on movement could be extended.

Implications of the movement ban continuing for any length of time are almost too many to mention. We are at that time of year when away-wintered ewes are about to be moved home for lambing; ewes with lambs at foot will need to be moved to grass; and store lambs on catch crops will all need fresh ground.

Among industry leaders, there is barely hidden anger that extensive, pastoral, environmental and ecologically friendly sheep farming has once again suffered as a consequence of procuring a cheaper product.

We have said it before, but it deserves repeating: There is no such thing as cheap food. When sheep producers have to pay the price of a problem, which probably stems from an imported source entering another intensively produced species, it is surely and intrinsically unfair. &#42


&#8226 Cheap food to blame.

&#8226 Critical time of year.

&#8226 Sheep farmers take hit again.

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