Farmers Weekly Interactive 25 May 2001
Ministry plans to slash national herd

By Alistair Driver

CIVIL servants are considering plans to ensure that Britain's livestock industry, devastated by foot-and-mouth, is unable to return to pre-crisis levels. Ministry of Agriculture officials believe livestock numbers could be permanently reduced if the government buys up sheep and beef quota.

Officials are formulating details of the scheme to buy quota from farmers. The idea will be put before the agriculture minister after the general election.

The plan is likely to be welcomed by conservationists, who have claimed that too many livestock have caused over-grazing in upland areas.

Official statistics show that more than 4 million animals have been slaughtered due to foot-and-mouth. But some sources suggest the final death toll will reach 8m.

To prevent the industry rebuilding, the proposals would see the government buying sheep and suckler cow quota from farmers who leave the industry. Quota would be stockpiled in a national reserve, guaranteeing that livestock numbers were reduced. It would not be reallocated.

Sheep farmers are dismayed. National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley said it was doubtful farmers would be able to buy the quota back.

Unless farmers were allowed to farm, the proposals would contribute to the dereliction of the countryside, said Mr Thorley.

"I don't see it as a good thing. Unless the government does something dramatic to restore confidence in the industry, I can't see people returning."

But the National Farmers' Union has backed the plans. NFU deputy director general Ian Gardiner said: "It is entirely feasible."

The scheme would provide short-term relief for sheep farmers who had lost 30% of their market because of the foot-and-mouth export ban, he said.

The departure of some farmers after foot-and-mouth could provide other with a golden opportunity to restructure, said Mr Gardiner.

Vacated holdings could be combined with neighbouring farms to create bigger, more efficient units, he said.

It is unclear whether the government would pay the market price or encourage producers to quit farming by paying more for quota.

Sheep quota sales averaged #3.63/unit last year, according to Hereford quota traders Thompson Land & Property. Suckler cow quota sales averaged #212/unit.

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers' Association, said current quota values may be too low to encourage farmers to quit farming.

Producers would sell their quota on the open market, he said: "I am not sure MAFF officials have thought about it too deeply." A MAFF spokeswoman said the ministry was unable to comment on future government policy until after the general election.