At long last, the EU is to lift the restrictions imposed on British livestock exports: a campaign I have been worrying away at for weeks. So far, so good. But, as is often the case when dealing with Brussels, there is a price to be paid: in return for allowing the rest of the country to resume its sales, the EU has insisted upon widening the exclusion area to cover most of my constituency.
Have a look here to see where exports animal movements are now restricted. The territory has not been chosen on any epidemiological basis. Not is it even a question of drawing a 50 kilometre circle around the Pirbright laboratory. That would have been far too logical. Instead, any local authority whose territory falls within such a circumference, if only by an inch, is obliged to impose the restrictions. The whole of Buckinghamshire is covered, for example, even though most of it is far from the original outbreak. The whole of Hampshire ditto, although the New Forest is remote from the afflicted farms. Even farmers who have no export trade now find themselves hampered by restrictions on their domestic activities; and all to pacify the rest of the EU.
The restrictions, in short, are commercial rather than scientific in inspiration. Long after the eradication of foot and mouth, the EU was unwilling to readmit British cattle or sheep exports without exacting tribute. That tribute is being paid by farmers in the South East.
Pause, for a moment, and think of what these men and women have been through in recent years: two foot and mouth outbreaks, one inflicted on them by their own government; the decline in world prices; bluetongue; late subsidy payments; floods. English farmers must feel as though they are living through a series of Biblical murrains: “And behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle, which is in the field,” says the Book of Exodus, “and upon the sheep”.
English farmers have had a wretched time, none more so than livestock farmers, and no livestock farmers more than those with cattle, and no cattle farmers more than those in the Home Counties. According to a DEFRA study in 2005, livestock farmers in the South East had suffered the sharpest decline in income in Britain, with Surrey the worst afflicted county.
I still occasionally hear NFU officials telling me that the Common Agricultural Policy is preferable to depending on the charity of an urban British government. But I almost never hear this opinion from working farmers any more. The CAP penalises us triply: as consumers, as producers and as taxpayers. Britain is a net food-importer with an efficient agricultural sector: most of what we contribute to the CAP goes, not into our own countryside, but to subsidise our farmers’ competitors across the Channel.
Surely we can do better than this. Almost anything would be an imporvement on the current system. We could replace the CAP with an acreage-based grant determined by land quality. We could adopt the Country Landowners’ Association scheme for a transferable agricultural bond. Under either option, farmers would get 90 per cent of the money contributed rather than, as happens under the CAP, 40 per cent.
Given a level playing field, and freedom to compete, our farmers would be the equal of any in the world. It’s surely time for a British agricultural policy, tailored to suit our own countryside.