North’s farmers feel caught in crosshairs of ‘nonsense’ protocol rules

Move to halt port checks comes as sector believes it is enduring ‘worst of both worlds’

Tucked on a farm off the Antrim coast within spitting distance of Larne port, pedigree Limousin cattle breeder Ian Davidson is biding his time until he can load cattle on a ship to take to shows in England again.

Since January 1st last year, Brexit's Northern Ireland protocol had been an indirect barrier for local breeders looking to take animals to the more competitive English and Scottish markets.

The initial rules that came into force stated that cattle or sheep that went across the Irish Sea to shows could not return within six months if they went unsold.

However, this was changed recently. Now, animals can come back but only if they do not mix with Scottish, Welsh or English livestock, an idea Mr Davidson feels was concocted by someone who never set foot in a livestock show or mart. Wednesday's bid by Stormont's North's Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots, to halt Brexit port checks has added another layer to the situation, but, for now, Mr Davidson will stand and watch.

"The whole thing is nonsense," he told The Irish Times, "There were times when you'd have two 40-foot cattle lorries going over to the bull sales in Stirling in Scotland from Larne, but now you'd only have a handful of bulls going over."

It all adds up to costly red-tape for farmers who depend on pedigree sales as their main source of income, since bulls that make £9,000 in Great Britain sell for just £6,000 in Northern Ireland.

But the risk of having to leave livestock behind unsold in Britain is too great for him and the majority of other breeders, so more clarity on the protocol is needed before he risks making any trips.

Agreed in December 2020 in a bid to avoid a hard border, the protocol has provided frictionless trade across the Irish border, but left farmers in the North tied to producing to EU standards while the rest of the UK is now free to diverge.

Northern farmers, says Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) president Victor Chestnutt feel like they are "second class EU and UK citizens" with little chance of benefitting from UK Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Australia and New Zealand post-Brexit.

Overall, 30 per cent of Northern Ireland’s fresh milk and 350,000 lambs are sold in the Republic of Ireland while most of the produce of Mr Chestnutt’s own family farm in Antrim, where he milks 400 cattle and fattens 350 ewes, is sold south of the border.

Chesnutt is well aware of the balance that has to be maintained, but, nevertheless, he is still scathing of how Brexit and the operation of the protocol has left the region’s farmers and the 113,000 agri-food jobs that depend on them.

‘Frozen out’

“We were told this protocol that it would give us the best of both worlds, yet we have to produce products to EU rules and we’re not allowed into the EU trade deal. Now we could be frozen out of UK trade as well,” Mr Chestnutt said.

Free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand could allow for a “flood” of cheap New Zealand lamb and Australian beef to come onto the UK market, a major cause of concern to Northern Irish farmers who export 80 per cent of what they produce.

“We’re being asked to farm to higher and higher standards, especially around climate, and we want to do that, but it comes at a cost. How are we meant to compete with countries such as Australia who couldn’t even be bothered to come to COP26?” he told The Irish Times.

Michael Bell, the executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), said that there still is enough recognition in the UK of the predicament facing Northern Ireland.

“The UK copied the entire EU rulebook into law so at the minute there is no point of difference between the legislation because it is identical, however this will diverge over time,” he told The Irish Times.

“Westminster is starting to go through those rules and revise, amend or dump them altogether as they see fit.”

While Mr Bell says that most trade in Northern Ireland is able to operate in line with the protocol, it is making life very difficult for for a minority of agri-food companies.

“The reality is that UK and EU trade quotas are not available to Northern Ireland. It’s an unresolved area but in the current holding pattern it would appear that we are in the worst of both worlds,” Mr Bell said.

The Australia and New Zealand trade deals were done quickly and without much consultation, and could hit Republic of Ireland farmers, too, if they lose out on Great Britain sales to competition from the southern hemisphere.

Despite London’s bid to talk up the trade deals, Mr Bell says that Northern Irish farmers will have a hard time competing with Australian and New Zealand farmers even with a 15-year lead in time before tariffs on sheep meat and beef end completely.

“We’re not anti-free trade but we’re very clear that those deals have to be on a level playing field. The island of Ireland has a very good story to tell in terms of food production and high animal welfare and climate standards but it will never be able to compete against ranch style farms with thousands of acres when it comes to efficiency,” he said.