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Sheep Fanners

Volume 170: debated on Thursday 19 April 1990

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what proposals he has to ensure that the cash flow of sheep farmers is improved in the next 12 months.

Our plans to pay two advances of sheep annual premium to producers in both less-favoured areas and other parts of the United Kingdom will help the cash flow of sheep farmers.

That reply was welcome, as was my hon. Friend's recent visit to my constituency, where he gave an excellent speech to a conference organised by the Exmoor Society and when he made the valid point that no honest Government could guarantee the income of every farmer, irrespective of the circumstances. Will he confirm that his Department gives the highest priority to providing incentives to farmers to remain on the uplands, because farmers are our best conservationists?

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct and I am grateful for his kind remarks, despite the fact that it was raining heavily in his constituency at that time. The Government put considerable resources into the uplands, but we cannot guarantee the livelihoods of all farmers there. However, it is clear that society is putting a higher and higher price on conservation of the countryside, and it is in our interests to encourage farmers to take advantage of that and to add to their fundamental role as food producers, the role of being the guardians of the countryside, as we all appreciate.

Does the Minister agree that the incomes of many sheep farmers are still being reduced because of the loss of stock and the worrying of stock by dogs? What is the Government's most recent estimate of the number of animals that are worried to death by dogs and how much does that cost farmers? Is not it high time that we had a proper dog registration scheme to encourage responsible dog owners and to stop some of the waste of animals' lives as a result of sheep worrying?

Most sheep farmers in my constituency have a clear formula for dealing with dogs that worry sheep.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Buckinghamshire there has been an outbreak of caseous lymphadenitis and that the disease affects sheep? Will he take this opportunity to reassure the House and all sheep farmers that his Ministry is taking all necessary precautions to make sure that the disease does not spread elsewhere?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. The disease has been found in goats, but it has not yet spread to sheep. We have taken strict precautions to ensure that there is no risk to human health.

Is the Minister aware that the announcement that he made earlier about the advance payments is welcome as far as it goes? However, does he accept that a serious cash flow problem faces sheep producers in the uplands, particularly in areas such as the Scottish borders? Does he further accept that one of the best ways to solve cash flow problems faced by sheep producers is to take advantage of the flexibility that he still has within the hill livestock compensatory allowance mechanism, which at present affords a payment of only £7·50 per ewe, whereas the European Economic Community would allow a payment of £10·70 per breeding animal? Will the Government use that flexibility to eliminate some of the cash flow problems facing sheep producers?

I am afraid that there is a Catch-22 in what the hon. Gentleman says. If we were to pay the full amount, the number of animals that would be eligible for the full payment under the headage limit would be reduced. We used the resources at our disposal to increase the HLCAs. We also argued for maximum flexibility in the European regulations. The hon. Gentleman must understand that our resources are limited. We shall always put them where they are most effective.