Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 19/01/2003)

Ministry wants lambs' ears pierced at a few days old
Another EU spanner in the recycling works
One president will not be enough
Fishermen's lifeline is cut

Ministry wants lambs' ears pierced at a few days old

Just before Christmas, James Bateman, who keeps sheep on the Mendip hills in Somerset, had a letter from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). He couldn't believe his eyes. As from February 1, it said, he would have to put metal or plastic tags in the ears of his "newborn lambs", carrying a 12-digit individual identification number.

For some years, under European Union rules, sheep farmers have had to tag the ears of full-grown ewes, which is so painful that every year up to 20 per cent of the tags are lost as the animals rub their ears on twigs or fences to get rid of them. "But only some official who had never seen a sheep," said Mr Bateman, "could come up with the idea of trying to tag a tiny lamb, which may be fighting for life anyway."

Mr Bateman next wondered how this scheme could work if every time a lamb died in the field or was carried off by a fox, the farmer had to round up his entire flock to check their numbers, to see which had gone missing.

I sent him a page of the new Defra regulations, which it claims will help to track sheep movements in the event of another foot and mouth epidemic, full of clauses such as "the number shall not fail to be an 'individual identification number' by reason only that it is not applied to the same eartag as the Origin Mark, S Mark, F Mark, R Mark or X Mark".

I then told him that the Scottish NFU had been complaining about the same problem. He therefore rang Scotland, only to discover that the scheme the Scots were worried about was quite different from the one he and all other English sheep farmers will have to comply with in two weeks' time.

What has made the Scottish NFU incandescent with rage is a quite separate proposal from Brussels whereby, as from next summer, each sheep will have to be individually tagged and have its own passport. But animals will not have to be tagged until they are six months old. In other words, Brussels cannot be blamed for the plan to inflict pain on newborn lambs. This refinement has been devised by our own Defra officials in Whitehall.

Nevertheless the Scottish NFU was so incensed at the idea of farmers constantly having to round up their flocks from thousands of acres of hillside to check which sheep had gone missing that, according to its livestock committee chairman, David Mitchell, it invited officials over from Brussels to see how impossible their scheme would be. The officials nodded their heads and simply "ignored all the problems".

Like Mr Bateman, Mr Mitchell and his colleagues are convinced that this scheme is so unworkable that its only effect will be to force most hill farmers out of business. Which is, of course, precisely what Brussels and Defra, in their desire to see Britain's sheep flock cut by 20 per cent, have long wanted to see. But what a nasty, devious way to go about it.

Another EU spanner in the recycling works

Last week even The Guardian, the BBC and Channel Four news were expressing horror at the prospect that, thanks to a new EU directive, hundreds of thousands of old cars will soon be abandoned on our roadsides. This was prompted by a report from the Institute for European Environment Policy (IEEP) which claims that the UK Government's mishandling of the end-of-life vehicles directive (known, like something out of Tolkien, as ELV) will impose a cost of #100 on the poorest sections of the community to get rid of old bangers when they are no longer worth keeping on the road.

To readers of this column there was nothing new about this story, which was reported here 15 months ago. What last week's reports did not bother to explain, however, was that this latest directive is only one of a whole series of EU environmental diktats that are so hopelessly misconceived that they actually make it uneconomic to recycle and end up inflicting more damage on the environment than that they are meant to prevent.

It is six years since I reported on the fiasco surrounding the first of these, intended to promote the recycling of old vehicle batteries. Until then Britain had the most efficient battery recycling system in Europe, recovering 97 per cent for further use. So cumbersome was the EU-inspired legislation that it no longer paid to collect batteries, with the result that millions were chucked out on roadsides. Our recycling rate dropped below 80 per cent.

Next on the list, as first revealed here, was the EU's ban on recycling of old fridges, to save the ozone layer. Entirely predictably, because Britain did not have any EU-approved crushing plants, this not only ended a valuable trade sending recycled fridges to Africa, it led to "fridge mountains" all over Britain which, as they rusted away, released quantities of supposedly harmful ozone-depleting CFCs into the air.

Now they have made it so uneconomical to recycle old vehicles (by requiring the costly separation of all the component parts) that scores of scrapyards specialising in car-breaking have gone out of business. The IEEP report predicts that the cost to its final user of surrendering an old vehicle legally will lead to 600,000 a year being illegally dumped.

Even this may pale into insigificance beside the effects of the next directive down the line: that on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (known as WEEE), designed to promote recycling of everything from computers to television sets. In identical fashion, this will make recycling so uneconomic that there are no prizes for guessing what we shall next see decorating Britain's roadsides when it comes into force.

One president will not be enough

Even fervent Europhiles, such as John Palmer, the president of the European Policy Centre, expressed bafflement last week at the latest Franco-German proposal that the EU should have not one powerful elected president but two (reminiscent perhaps of the two consuls of ancient Rome). One end of this Push-me-pull-you or pantomine horse, possibly Mr Blair, would be chosen by heads of member-state governments. The other, a much more powerful president of the Commission, would be voted for by the EU Parliament.

Not long ago our own Europe minister, Peter Hain, commented scornfully that any such proposal for an elected Commission president was so far-fetched it would "never see the light of day". Obviously he is not a reader of The Telegraph. The latest proposal for a Commission president elected by the Parliament is in fact remarkably similar to one secretly put forward by the former president Jacques Delors in 1992, as revealed at the time by Boris Johnson when he was this newspaper's Brussels correspondent.

Mr Johnson's front-page scoop in May 1992 caused such a stir that it was blamed by Denmark's then prime minister for tipping the scales in the referendum three weeks later in which the Danes, by the tiniest of margins, chucked out the Maastricht Treaty. It was thought to be an indication of how the European Community, as it then was, had ambitions to become a superstate. Perish the thought, declared embarrassed Commission officials, agreeing that the proposal might seem more appropriate in "10 to 15 years time".

Obviously the Foreign Office never bothered to tell Mr Hain that those 10 years are now up, and that once the Commission comes up with any proposal for increasing its powers it never goes away forever. Thanks to Mr Johnson, you read it in The Telegraph first.

Fishermen's lifeline is cut

Dana, the Irish pop singer turned MEP, was last week startled to discover that the European Commission has diverted €50 million (#33 million) earmarked for the restructuring of the EU fishing industry to Marie Stopes International, an organisation dedicated to promoting abortion and contraception.

When a disbelieving Struan Stevenson, the Tory chairman of the EU Parliament's fisheries committee, checked this with Commission officials, he was astonished to have it confirmed. Just when the Scottish fishing industry faces extinction to make room for heavily-subsidised Spanish fishermen to get "equal access" to the UK's fishing waters, the timing of Brussels's decision is impeccable.

The fishermen of Peterhead and Fraserburgh will doubtless be overjoyed to hear that cash which could be used to help them as they go bankrupt is to be spent on encouraging abortion instead.