Farmers' annus horribilis

Chloe Smith reports on a summer of woes for British farmers

Last month, some farmers thought it could not get any worse. The wettest June and July since records began flooded large areas of our countryside, drowning livestock and decimating feed crops. The National Farmers' Union (NFU) once again had to issue increasingly frantic warnings, pleading with supermarkets to support British food producers.

Then came foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). So highly contagious, one theory to how it emerged is that a worker at one of the Pirbright laboratories might have scratched his nose while working with the live virus, and unwittingly left the facility with traces of FMD on his body.

As MTJ went to press, the source of the outbreak had still not been confirmed, but the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is almost certain it originated from either the government-run Institute for Animal Health (IAH) or the private pharmaceutical company Merial Animal Health, both of which are licensed to work with the live virus to develop vaccines at Pirbright laboratories in Surrey, just three miles away from the first outbreak at Woolfords Farm in the village of Elstead.

the fmd 'nightmare'

Roger Pride had to break the news to his elderly parents on 3 August that, not only was FMD back once again, it was in their cattle. He described it as a "nightmare we have been living" and said it was "dreadful for everyone concerned". Two more herds on other nearby farms in Surrey were slaughtered over the next few days after showing symptoms of the disease and another herd was thought to be infected outside of the original control and surveillance zones, but fortunately, this turned out to be negative.

The farmers who thought it could not get any worse after the summer floods were, evidently, wrong. No-one is sure how long this will go on or how far it might spread, although signs are beginning to look positive. And even though some abattoirs are now working again, the ban on the free movement of livestock is costing farmers dear, as breeding stocks remain stranded.

However, two weeks in, and it seems the fears of a reprisal of 2001's disaster will hopefully be avoided. So far, 576 cattle have been culled, devastating the businesses of several families. In 2001, around 10m animals had to be killed; virtually no farming family in the country was untouched by the destruction.

For Thomas Binns, the NFU's chairman of the livestock board, news of the FMD outbreak brought back memories of 2001, when nearly three-quarters of his 70-strong suckler cow herd and 2,500-strong breeding ewe stock was culled at his farm in Lancashire. "There was very much a feeling of déjà vu," he says. "Having been through it personally and having the industry go through it six years ago, a lot of it was very familiar territory."


The big question now for farmers is how farmgate prices will fare with the busiest months for British lamb upon us, and export bans in force. "The single most important factor in terms of business is how the market will react," says Binns. "We sincerely hope we don't see a repetition of 2001, where prices were driven into the floor and farmers were very much held to ransom." So far, though, prices seem to be holding, says Binns: "Many people are quoting prices that are equivalent to where trade finished when the movement ban came into place." The next few months will be testing, though. "We are very, very concerned about forward prices," he says. August, September and October usually sees around 25% of British lamb exported, but until the European Commission decides to lift the ban, farmers will have to contend with a higher volume of product competing in a smaller market.

high finishing costs

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