Regional cull may be considered to assist North


THE British Farm Minister, Mr Douglas Hogg, last night for the first time accepted the possibility of a special regional beef cull to assist the early return of Northern Ireland and Scottish beef to world markets.

British discussions on the issue with fellow ministers and the Commission were taking place on the fringes of the Farm Council which has been trying to thrash out proposals for rebalancing the beef market and paying for the BSE compensation package to farmers.

Sources close to the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Yates, warned yesterday that agreement on the package may not be possible at this meeting, but that this should be clearer when the Presidency presents its outline compromise paper this morning.

Last night, a Commission spokesman said that "all that could be agreed was that there should be more money for the farmers - but there is no more money". He said French proposals to transfer substantial savings from the current year's budget were not feasible legally.

There was simply no alternative, he said, to finding the cash from the arable aid budget.

On the rebalancing of the beef market - an attempt to reduce production so that it meets depressed demand - there were indications of support for German proposals for an optional early marketing premium for calves as an alternative to the Commission's controversial "Herod premium" under which newborn calves are slaughtered. Or a mix of the two.

But there was resistance from Germany to proposals, backed by Ireland, for reinforcing the extensification scheme under which subsidies are paid to encourage farmers with fewer head per acre.

The president of the Irish Farmers' Association, Mr John Donnelly, said he would be very disappointed if the ministers failed to agree. "The Irish Presidency is slipping by with only two months to go. From an Irish point of view it is important to get something done," he said.

Mr Donnelly warned that the crisis was likely to be aggravated by the revaluation of the Green Pound next week which could cut a further 2 per cent off the value of Irish farm production.

The president of the ICMSA, Mr Frank Allen, said it was time to revert to more natural types of farming which supports the production of healthy food and the maximum number of farm families working the land". He called for an end to factory methods and the subsidising of farmers to produce "elephant animals".

Meanwhile, Mr Hogg denied that Britain was prepared to take a regional approach to the beef ban. But he admitted that if talks with the Commission and other member states produced a national deal on "certified herds" - herds that can be certified BSE free - he would be prepared to consider a selective cull of Northern Ireland and Scottish beef if it was a way of speeding the process of re admission to the market.

Only herds in the North are at present able to satisfy EU requirements on traceability and because of the predominance of grass feeding a large number of them could be certified almost immediately. It will take many months for the rest of the UK to reach acceptable standards.

Mr Hogg repeated his contention that such a cull would not be scientifically justifiable but said if fellow member states insisted it was required "to restore consumer confidence" it would have, to be considered.

The move, although dressed up as a national approach to the problem, represents a significant climbdown by the British - who have insisted that the Florence selective cull of at risk animals was no longer required.

Mr Yates made it clear as he arrived for the meeting that any partial lifting of the beef export ban would depend upon implementation at local level of the selective cull of at risk animals - and on the British making specific proposals to this effect.

"The situation is that the Florence agreement has to be met. The accelerated cull has to go ahead. If it goes ahead in one part of the United Kingdom or Northern Ireland, then a regional approach can be considered."