Opinion

Beef and sheep farmers need Brexit certainty now

Assuming Theresa May gets a Brexit deal across the line with her parliamentary colleagues over the coming weeks, then the Government must act to flesh out the future for farm support once we leave the European Union.

And this is particularly the case, where beef and lamb are concerned.

No other group is as dependent on the current EU’s influence as are livestock producers. Moreover, these farmers – for the most part – operate within management cycles that are up to four years’ long.

For example, it will take a minimum of three years for a beef calf conceived now to reach maturity as a beef animal. And, on many farms, this period could be stretched out to a full four years.

In the meantime, the UK is moving ever closer to the leaving the EU on March 29. Given this backdrop, the need to provide future certainty for livestock farmers now is obvious.

There is little doubt that the basic payment system of support, as we know it today, will fall by the wayside – once London takes over policy regulation.

But the core priority that must not be overlooked is the actual level of financial support that must be made available to the beef and sheep industries. It’s all about keeping these sectors on a sustainable footing.

Currently, the vast bulk of the profits generated by beef and sheep farmers are accounted for by the direct payments made available from Brussels.

There is no certainty at all concerning the future of food commodity prices in the UK, once we leave the EU. They could go up. But equally, they could move in the opposite direction.

This is why it is so important for farmer funding levels to be maintained at current levels, once Brexit becomes reality.

There is also a need for Whitehall to prioritise the fundamental importance of family farms in regions like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The other reality that must be recognised is the fact that our beef and sheep output underpins a food processing industry that pumps billions into the UK economy, while also employing many thousands of people.

Beef and sheep in the UK have a lot going for them. The Red Tractor farm quality assurance scheme is helping to drive export sales at the present time. This must be built on for the future.

Many people point to the prospect of British agriculture restructuring itself over the coming years. But beef and sheep farmers must be given the time and scope to allow this happen in a smooth and acceptable fashion.

This is why it is so important for the current support levels for livestock farmers to be maintained well into the future.

In my opinion, the UK Government has taken far too long on settling its Brexit policy objectives. But now that the matter looks like coming to a head, the clear need to agree long-term policy priorities for beef and sheep becomes very obvious.