Wednesday, 16th September 2009
Hopes dashed for electronic sheep tag concessions
I managed to secure a meeting in Strasbourg with Consumer Affairs Commissioner Androula Vassiliou and three members of her Cabinet. I invited five of Scotland's 6 MEPs to attend the meeting at which we were trying to win final concession to the controversial plan on electronic sheep tagging.
The Agriculture Council agreed in December 2007 that mandatory electronic identification should be introduced across the EU for sheep and goats by 31st December 2009. A later concession to the UK has enabled EID readers to be fitted mainly at key movement points such as markets and abattoirs, meaning that many sheep farmers will be able to avoid the cost of purchasing this expensive scanning equipment. This concession was grudgingly given however and the UK government had to agree not to seek any further concessions on the EID issue.
Sadly our meeting did nothing to change the Commission's position. We were disappointed that the commissioner was not for turning and was unable offer any further concessions.
We asked that breeding ewes born and spending their entire life on a holding should not require ID as there is no benefit to disease control. She replied that it was necessary in case they got mixed up with sheep from neighbouring holdings. We pressed her to give a commitment to hold a review of EID within three years so that any major changes could be legislated for. She said this was not possible.
We pressed her to set out clearly the tolerances the commission would allow when it came to cross compliance and she pointed out that this was a matter for the Agricultural Commissioner and that local conditions would also require to be taken into account by local inspectors. We pressed her to provide funding for farmers to implement the scheme and she pointed out that the Scottish Government would be able to use SRDP funding to provide assistance. She said other member states such as Spain and Italy had given financial assistance to implement the scheme.
She also clarified that other member states had insisted on the UK giving a commitment that they would not ask for further concessions until EID was implemented as a pre-condition of them agreeing to the last concessions, but she made it clear that this left the door open for the UK Government to open up the debate in Council again once implementation phase had started.
Finally, she reminded us that there is a two year gradual implementation process for EID up until December 31st 2011.
It seemed like the Commissioner and her team were dead set on holding their position come what may. There was no way she was going to give in to further concessions. It seems incredible that the Commission will insist on breeding ewes being tagged even when they will never leave the holding on which they were born and therefore could pose no risk of spreading disease. Mrs Vassiliou's explanation that such flocks could get mixed up with neighbouring flocks seems to ignore the physical conditions on Scotland's hill farms, where neighbouring hefted flocks can often be on the other side of a mountain! Surely it is not rocket science simply to close down neighbouring farms if an outbreak of disease occurs?
The Commissioner and her team were equally unsympathetic when we raised the question of black losses....sheep that die and disappear on the hills and uplands of Scotland. These losses occur all the time and will affect the annual count of the flock under the EID regulations. However, the Commissioner was unmoved by this information and would give no concessions on cross-compliance thresholds or guarantees that farmers will not lose part of their single farm payments due to missing sheep.
Altogether it was a disappointing, although fairly predictable outcome to our meeting. It is very sad that the Commission seem so determined to introduce a system which I believe is impractical, expensive and unnecessary. The EU seems hell-bent on killing off Scotland’s sheep sector.
EID may well constitute the last nail in the coffin for our beleaguered sheep farmers, few of whom can afford to fit every animal with expensive microchips or deal with the complex cross-compliance issues involved. As our sheep sector dwindles, once again the EU will have to rely increasingly on imported lamb from countries out-with the EU, who pay no attention whatsoever to the rigorous regulations and controls we impose on our own farmers.
This is why our national flock in the UK has fallen in the past decade from 20 million to under 16 million sheep - still the biggest flock in Europe but not, I fear, for much longer.
The report published by the SAC’s Rural Policy Centre earlier this year – ‘Retreat from the Hills’ - eloquently outlined the looming disaster that our hill and upland farmers are facing, showing a 23% drop in sheep numbers and an 11.7% reduction in the beef breeding herd over the past ten years. The situation is even more dramatic in parts of the north and west of the country. Spiralling feed, fuel and fertiliser costs and a market price that has failed to meet the real costs of production has driven many farmers to sell off their stock or give up farming entirely.
The NFU in Scotland has also launched proposals to stop the exodus of cattle and sheep from our hills and uplands, warning of the huge social, environmental and economic impacts that this will cause, in fragile and peripheral areas of our community. The NFUS has pointed out that they are not seeking new public funds to help Scotland’s hill farm sector, just better utilisation of existing funds.
I agree with them entirely and share their view that we need to see funding targeted at those who are clearly engaged in delivering positive social, environmental and economic benefits to our hill and upland areas.