08 September 1999
Sheep scheme is government priority
By Isabel Davies
GOVERNMENT plans to slaughter thousands of unwanted sheep are taking a priority over a similar scheme that would reduce calf numbers, it has emerged.
Proposals for a national scheme to slaughter thousands of ewes could be presented to the European Commission before the end of next week.
But any help for dairy farmers in the form of a similar scheme to slaughter thousands of worthless week-old dairy bull calves appears increasingly unlikely.
Government ministers confirmed on Wednesday that they are considering a national ewe disposal scheme to ease the deepening crisis in the livestock sector.
Agriculture minister Nick Brown said officials were drawing up plans for the ewe scheme after a special crisis summit with other ministers in London.
The three-hour summit was Mr Browns first formal meeting since devolution with his counterparts from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Ministry of Agriculture said the talks aimed to ensure that post-devolution arrangements addressed the problems within the UK agricultural sector.
Mr Brown met with Scottish rural affairs minister Ross Finnie, Welsh agriculture secretary Christine Gwyther, and Northern Ireland farm minister Lord Dubs.
After the summit, Mr Brown indicated that proposals for the ewe disposal scheme could be put before the European Commission before the end of next week.
European Union rules prevent the government from paying money direct to farmers but a ewe disposal service based on welfare grounds is a possibility.
Scottish rural affairs Ross Finnie, who has been lobbied by farmers desperate to see an end to the farm crisis, will be in Brussels next Monday.
The ministers are also believed to be considering a relaxation of the regulations regarding the removal of specified risk material in sheep.
Farmers have blamed the rules, which mean that sheep carcasses must be split before export, for making overseas sales of British lamb uncompetitive.
But Mr Brown ruled out a re-introduction of the Calf Processing Aid Scheme to dispose of unwanted dairy calves.
The difficulties on the calf side are formidable, he told reporters.
Calf prices have slumped to loss making levels since the abolition in July of the aid scheme which guaranteed farmers about 40 for each dairy bull calf.
Welsh agriculture secretary Christine Gwyther had threatened to go it alone unless Mr Brown re-introduced the scheme across the UK.
Wales would introduce its own processing scheme to dispose of calves even if Mr Brown refuses the request for funding, she told BBC radio.
After the summit, however, Ms Gwyther and Mr Finnie agreed to work together with Mr Brown for the time being, saying that doing so was best for the industry.
Mr Brown was then due to meet with the NFUs policy committee at the unions headquarters in Shaftesbury Avenue.
But the Ministry of Agriculture cancelled the meeting, saying there was no time because the summit meeting had over-run.
Ian Gardner, NFU deputy director-general, said he was disappointed Mr Brown was unable to attend but it was more important he spent time with his colleagues.