From Farmers Guardian January 10th 2003

FARMERS are set to vent their anger at the 20-day rule in a series of protests outside Government offices today, as a FARMERS GUARDIAN poll reveals the overwhelming extent of industry opposition to animal movement controls.

Peaceful protests, which have received the full backing of the National Farmers Union, are due to take place at 11am this morning at divisional veterinary offices across England and Wales. The intention, according to protest organisers, is to get across to DEFRA vets the full extent of farmer dissatisfaction with the 20-day rule and proposed alternative movement restrictions.

The protesters have been boosted by the results of an FG phone poll, published today, showing that nearly 90 per cent of our readers reject both alternatives to the current 20-day rule put forward by DEFRA in December. The department is seeking industry opinion on two proposed alternative regimes that could replace the current system in the spring.

Over 600 people responded to our poll and just 11 of them (2 per cent) voted to retain the 20-day rule but with more exemptions and easier conditions attached to them. The option of replacing the 20-day rule with a shorter standstill but with no exemptions was slightly more popular, polling 64 votes (10 per cent). But an overwhelming majority, 535 people (88 per cent), rejected both options. They chose option 3 in our poll, which said: "Neither of these suggestions are suitable for my business or for the industry. Think again please."

One of the principle organisers of today's protest is Devon beef and sheep farmer John Dawe, chairman of the county NFU. "The 20-day rule is the number one contentious issue that is raised at every meeting and this poll confirms what I have been hearing. Farmers say the 20-day rule is completely unacceptable and do not believe we need any movement restrictions at all," he told FG.

Commenting on DEFRA's proposed alternatives to the 20-day rule, he said the conditions attached to exemptions made them 'completely useless'. "One of the key messages will be that rules that make no sense do not get adhered to," he said.

At the time of going to press protests were scheduled to take place at DEFRA divisional veterinary offices in Exeter, Leeds, Newcastle, Carlisle, Reading, Cardiff, Worcester and Preston. Monmouthshire farmer Rhys Parry, co-ordinating the protest in Wales, warned the Government that this could the start of a series of protests over the rule. "Today will be a peaceful protest and hopefully somebody will take notice. If we need to step up the action that is what will be done," he said.

NFU head of livestock Kevin Pearce said the union leadership is fully supporting the action and is encouraging its members to take part. Commenting on results of the FG poll, he said: "I agree with them. When you count everything that has been done since February 2001 to improve biosecurity at farms and markets, it is clear that there is no need for any whole farm standstill. The 20-day rule has been hugely damaging for the industry and I believe it has been a retrograde step. We need to return to a situation where farmers have confidence in Government and Government trusts farmers."

He said a system based on ensuring high levels of biosecurity on farms, through, for example, separating oncoming animals would render a whole-farm standstill unnecessary.

National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley gave his backing to the protest. "I think it will bring home to the Government the strength of feeling there is over this issue," he said.

Commenting on the FG poll result, he said: "Whatever system comes in must be simple to operate, allow the industry to trade and offer real health benefits. The 20-day rule offers none of these."

A stakeholders meeting on the 20-day rule is scheduled in London next week. A DEFRA spokeswoman said it is too early to comment on feedback to its consultation on possible alternatives to the 20-day rule before then. Details of a new permanent movement regime to come into place in the spring should be announced at the end of February.

[Alistair Driver]