Sheep industry in meltdown

The sheep industry is in serious meltdown, a farming leader has told butchers and meat traders.

There are simply no customers for some animals at fat stock markets, the chairman of the Royal Smithfield Club, Neil Gourlay, told liverymen in a speech to the Worshipful Company of Butchers. With so little custom at markets it was not worth farmers sending their stock for sale, he said.

Gourlay said one farmer had recently told him that this year had been the best in 50 "for turning a pound into a penny" in the sheep sector.

There had been no sympathy from supermarkets for the farmers' plight with some continuing to sell New Zealand lamb outside of the main season. Marks and Spencer had pledged support though.

He warned that the sheep sector was in danger of going the same way as the dairy industry.

The crisis facing the sheep sector was illustrated, he said, by the prices being paid to farmers. Some 25 years ago farmers were getting £37 for a lamb; the price was now down to £24. Had parity on inflation and the cost of living been maintained farmers should now be getting £76 for each lamb sold, he said.

There are mixed fortunes in other sectors. Beef will get dearer as a result of higher feed costs, he warned, but otherwise the sector is not faring too badly. The poultry sector is also being hit by higher feed costs with some producers finding prices rising by £8,500 a week in the last month. Pork producers were similarly affected.

Gourlay went on to propose radical action in the fight against blue tongue disease. "Let's have the whole country as a restricted zone and vaccinate against it" he urged.

And the Government should pay the industry for the damage caused by foot and mouth disease, he added. "I seriously believe the Government has to pay for the damage done."

The cancellation of this year's Royal Smithfield Christmas Fair had been a real disappointment, he said. "We are all set to go next year and hope to see you there." Next year's Fair will take place at the Royal Bath and West Showground in Somerset on 5 and 6 December.