I AM late and apologetic and Janet Finch-Saunders, the Conservatives Shadow Minister for Rural Affairs, is in a hurry to beat the foul weather and get to Cardiff to attend the Senedd.
I have committed the cardinal sin of booking two interviews close together and the first has run over.
We get through understandably brisk introductions and she explains: “I’m heading to Cardiff for the week’s business. It’s the least we can do as members: actually turn up and try to hold the Welsh Government to account. I think it’s ridiculous that ministers can’t be bothered to turn up in the Chamber to face proper scrutiny.
“Zoom is all very well but it’s no substitute for detailed questioning, face-to-face. Most people turn up at their place of work and are expected to. Yet Welsh ministers, who live nearby, can make it to a TV studio in Cardiff but not get to the Chamber where they should be answering questions in person,” she added sharply.
“Turning up isn’t a gesture. It’s where Senedd members, are supposed to be and it’s disgraceful Welsh Labour ministers aren’t.”
With that chilly blast out of the way, we move rapidly on to policy.
Janet Finch-Saunders took on the rural affairs brief as a result of Paul Davies’ re-shuffle of his frontbench team. She succeeded the combative Andrew RT Davies and she also doesn’t pull her punches about the Welsh Government’s approach to farmers and rural communities.
“They’ve been totally let down by this Welsh Labour Government,” she said, continuing: “Cardiff Bay is not governing for the whole of Wales. Our farmers and rural communities are being ignored and treated as an afterthought. The Welsh Government is set on its own agenda which doesn’t take account of the importance of farming to the lives of rural communities, let alone the livelihoods of the people who live there.
“Eight-four percent of land in Wales is rural. Rural communities are an integral part of Wales and who we are. But after twenty years of devolution they don’t have much to show for how important they are. The Welsh Government has wasted money on its own vanity projects and programmes; taken the maximum cut out of funds that should have gone to farmers and thrown it at projects which delivered no measurable benefit; its policy on Bovine TB is a total mess.
“The Welsh Labour Government has no rural constituency seats and it shows in the way it approaches policy: a few think tanks filled with the usual suspects tell it what it wants to hear and off it goes without any understanding of farming and rural life. And farmers and rural groups who oppose Welsh Labour’s pet-projects are then said to oppose measures to improve the environment! It’s nonsense.”
We asked whether there was a particular policy Janet Finch-Saunders had in mind and she responded in a flash.
“NVZs (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones). That is a policy which the Welsh Labour Government asked its own statutory advisor, Natural Resources Wales, to advise it on how the Welsh Government should deal with nitrate pollution in rivers. NRW gave its advice, which was that there was no need to declare the whole of Wales an NVZ and that enforcement would be impossible within its current budget. But the Welsh Government went ahead and did it anyway. Then, during recess and at one of the busiest parts of the farming year, the Minister (Lesley Griffiths) started a consultation, ignored requests to postpone it because of the coronavirus pandemic, and that is going to be the background to government’s approach.
“This sort of government, by consultation after consultation (when the Welsh Government has already made up it’s mind) and communicating Cabinet statement has to stop. Ministers must make informed decisions which take account of everyone who is involved in what happens on the ground. They have to turn up to the Senedd and answer for them.”
When it came to a specific issue, Janet Finch-Saunders identified the plight of Wales’ wool producers.
“The price of fleeces has fallen through the floor. We have a fantastic product which can be used for so many different things. I am glad the Welsh Government has taken on board the pressure from farming unions and my requests to commit to using Welsh wool. It’s environmentally-friendly insulation and should be used in Welsh Government buildings at every opportunity.
“It’s criminal that wool farmers are having to use fleeces for compost because wool processors are not taking up the allocation they usually would because of COVID. That’s an instance where the Welsh Government can make a big difference by making a relatively small commitment from its budget to support Wales’ wool producers.”
Janet Finch-Saunders’ predecessor was not shy of criticising Lesley Griffiths for avoiding attending the Senedd to answer questions; unsurprisingly, given her earlier words, neither is Janet Finch-Saunders.
“There is no good reason for avoiding being questioned in person, Making announcements when members cannot ask you about them is ridiculous. I’ve written to Lesley Griffiths on behalf of a constituent and waited ages for an answer. The person’s problem needed sorting out. How are Senedd members supposed to help their constituents when a Minister is permanently unavailable?”
Warming to her theme, Mrs Finch-Saunders continued: “This is a shambles of a government. I can tell you that a Welsh Conservative Government won’t treat our rural communities and farmers with such contempt. They will be front and centre of our policies.
“The problem, as Paul Davies has said, is not devolution but the way Welsh Labour has mismanaged it. It’s wasted money and wasted opportunities. It’s dithered, delayed, kicked cans down the road, and achieved a fraction of what it could’ve and should’ve for Wales. That gap in achievement is nowhere bigger than when it comes to farming and our communities.
“A Welsh Conservative Government will close that gap. We will make the most of opportunities to deliver locally-focussed schemes which will also benefit Wales as a whole. We will strip out inefficiency and waste and get on with delivering policies which will make a real difference to our farmers, agricultural industries, producers and the rural communities which depend on them.”
And with that, Janet Finch-Saunders really had to go and travel to Cardiff through the pouring rain to make sure she was where Members of the Senedd should be.
Johnson announces end to lamb export ban ‘soon’
WELSH farming industry bodies have welcomed the prospect of Welsh Lamb exports to the US being lifted soon.
The Prime Minister claimed the ban would end after meeting with President Biden in Washington last week.
The potential market for PGI Welsh Lamb in the USA has been estimated to be worth as much as £20million a year within five years of the export restrictions being removed.
LIFTING THE BAN
The ban on British lamb to the USA has been in place since 1996 following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The ban was extended in some countries to sheepmeat because a related sheep disease (scrapie) belongs to the same family of diseases.
HCC Chief Executive Gwyn Howells said, “Achieving market access for lamb to the USA has been a long road, and it looks as if we’re nearly at the end of the journey.
“The ban, brought in back in 1996, has not been necessary or justifiable for many years. But it’s taken a long effort and much technical work to overcome the various administrative hurdles.
“There is a promising market for high-quality Welsh Lamb in the USA, particularly in the hotel and restaurant trade on the east coast.
“Research has shown that the trade could be worth £20million a year for the sector if we can achieve access and work on developing the market.
“We look forward to hearing the details behind the announcement and are ready to grasp the opportunity should it arise.”
NEWS A BOOST FOR WELSH AGRICULTURE
Welsh Conservative and Shadow Rural Affairs Minister Samuel Kurtz MS said: “Farmers across Wales will welcome the news that the US has lifted the ban on the imports of British lamb.
“It’s now imperative that both the UK and Welsh Governments work in tandem to promote the benefits of Welsh lamb so that its market potential can be fulfilled.”
NFU Cymru has welcomed reports that positive progress is being made on lifting a long-standing ban
NFU Cymru Livestock Board Chairman Wyn Evans said: “After being shut out of the US market for over 30 years, today’s reports that Welsh sheep farmers may soon be able to access this potentially lucrative marketplace are welcome news for the sector.
“We certainly want to see this ban lifted so that trade can resume as soon as possible.
“Now this vital trade avenue appears to be a step closer to opening, it is crucial the UK Government and the authorities work alongside the whole supply chain so that we are in a position to supply product into the US as soon as the ban is lifted.
“We now wait with interest to hear more news from the US Secretary of State for Agriculture to confirm the reports that we have received following the Prime Minister’s comments.”
VITAL TO OPEN MORE EXPORT OPPORTUNITIES
The Farmers’ Union of Wales also welcomed the news.
The FUW has long discussed the prospect of lifting the unjustified ban with the USDA in various meetings over the past decade.
Speaking from his Carmarthenshire sheep farm, FUW Deputy President Ian Rickman said: “Now more than ever, we need to explore other export markets while also protecting our long-established markets in Europe.
“The US market is one we are keen to develop much stronger relationships with and the news that this ban could soon be lifted is most welcome news for our sheep industry.”
NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker commented: “We are delighted about the announcement that the ban is to be lifted – the UK sheep industry has been waiting for this for many years.
“The sheep industry in the UK has clear potential to grow further, but any expansion must be market and demand-led.
“The UK is the third-largest exporter of sheepmeat globally, telling us that we are good at producing sheepmeat and that our supply chains are efficient and able to deliver.
“This creates another opportunity for our industry to maximise trade opportunities, and we have always seen the US as being a potentially significant market.
“After the domestic market, the EU is still our largest export market and is on our doorstep. However, access is more difficult than it was when we were part of the EU. It’s essential to maintain EU access but it is also important to work on any market that gives us future potential.”
Mr Stocker highlighted other benefits: “We shouldn’t expect to see any sudden surge in volumes going to the US, but we do know there is strong demand for UK sheep genetics – semen and embryos. Many British sheep breeds are in the US but are numerically too small to have a strong gene pool, so genetics demand is strong.
“In addition, with sheepmeat consumption being very low in the US we believe we can help stimulate interest in lamb and quality mutton through exporting high quality British sheepmeat that reinspires interest in the product and helps the US sheep industry to build further.”
No badger cull but bTB strategy change on cards
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has ruled out controlling the spread of bovine TB through a targeted cull in areas where the disease is endemic.
A spokesperson confirmed the Welsh Government’s position ahead of the publication of a significant review of its TB eradication strategy.
The review, led by Professor Glyn Hewinson of Aberystwyth University, is likely to focus on cattle vaccination and the use of improved tests for TB bacteria in cattle.
False positives for BTB can only be detected after death by a post-mortem.
BOVINE TB DEVASTATES PEMBROKESHIRE FARMS
The persistence of the BTB bacteria in the soil and in the protected wild mammal population, particularly badgers, creates a perfect storm for farmers in our county.
The area around the shared borders of North Pembrokeshire, the Teifi Valley, and North West Carmarthen is a long-standing hotspot for the disease.
Farmers in that area have suffered disproportionate and repeated losses throughout the Welsh Government’s different approaches to eradicating BTB.
When the disease is detected in a herd, it is standard practice for all of it to be slaughtered. Although farmers are partly compensated for their loss, the loss of their stock leaves farmers with long-term problems for their business’s recovery.Herds’ loss and slaughter are linked closely to mental health problems among farmers and farming families. The cost of BTB is much greater than balancing profit and loss.
CURRENT PROGRAMME ISN’T WORKING
Local MS Sam Kurtz, who comes from a farming family, told The Herald: “Since the 1970s, bovine TB has been a dark cloud hanging over our agricultural industry
“While it may not have had the impact on the public’s psyche as the Foot and Mouth crisis had in the early 2000s, bovine TB has been a long and heavy burden on Welsh farmers, with over 20,000 cattle killed in the last 2 years.
“What the Welsh Government have in terms of a policy is the repetition of an outdated and inaccurate testing regime followed by stringent and debilitating restrictions on farmers.
“It is clear, from the latest data showing new bovine TB cases in Wales have risen by 3%, that the Welsh Government’s current eradication programme is simply not working.
“Throughout the pandemic, our farmers have worked 24/7 to keep food on our tables, despite being laboured with the stresses and concerns of routine TB testing.
“The industry is now desperate for some urgency and a change in strategy.
“A new testing regime, Enferplex, delivers superior accuracy than the current test.
“While it is being undertaken in small pockets of Wales, a dedicated pilot scheme of this new test to collect hard data must be a priority for this Welsh Government.”
The Enferplex Bovine TB antibody test identifies the presence of bovine tuberculosis. Used in conjunction with existing tests, it is far more accurate than current tests in validating positive diagnoses.
EFFECTIVE PROGRAMME MUST TACKLE ALL ASPECTS OF DISEASE
The FUW believes that any future changes to the bTB eradication programme should closely follow the science to develop an effective eradication programme covering all aspects of the disease in Wales.
An FUW spokesperson told us: “Bovine TB continues to suffocate businesses in the high and intermediate areas of infection in Wales and continues to have a significant detrimental effect on the mental health and well-being of our farmers and their families.
“September’s Quarterly Publication of National Statistics on the incidence and prevalence of tuberculosis in Cattle in Great Britain shows variable results, with no year-on-year change in the number of herds that are not TB free in the High West Area of Wales, and a 26% rise in the number of herds not TB free in the Intermediate North Area.
“Such results continue to devastate businesses that have made massive sacrifices
to comply with the Welsh Government’s costly and burdensome bovine TB eradication programme.
“The FUW welcomes further research on this devastating disease as part of a science led and pragmatic approach to TB control in Wales. We look forward to the publication of the next TB review and will be discussing the findings of the review at all relevant political and policy levels.”
NFU CYMRU: WELCOME REVIEW BUT URGE OPEN MIND ON CULL
NFU Cymru County Adviser for Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, Peter Howells, said: “It is concerning to see the latest bovine TB statistics published by Defra that show a rise in bovine TB incidents and the loss of 10,775 animals in Wales to this dreadful disease in the year ending June 21. This once again highlights that bovine TB continues to wreak havoc on the cattle industry in Wales.
“In October 2017, we saw the Welsh Government introduce a regionalised approach to tackling the disease in Wales.
NFU Cymru is supportive of an approach that allows for the appropriate measures to be introduced depending on the circumstances.
In Low TB areas of Wales, we must do all we can to keep the disease out. In areas of the country, such as South West Wales, where the evidence suggests that both cattle and badgers suffer from this disease, we believe that the disease will only be brought under control through a comprehensive package of measures that tackles the infection in both populations.
“We continue to urge Welsh Government to take note of the evidence published from England. A peer-reviewed scientific report examining the effectiveness of badger culling in reducing outbreaks of TB in cattle has shown positive results in England.
“The Defra-commissioned report revealed an average reduction in the incidence of bovine TB of at least 40% in areas of England that have completed at least four years of culling.
“Just across the border in Gloucestershire, the report has shown a 66% decline in new TB breakdowns.
“NFU Cymru continues to use every opportunity to raise with the Minister for Rural Affairs our concerns for the emotional and financial impact this disease causes to farming families. Earlier this summer, we wrote directly to the First Minister on this matter.
“We are aware that the Minister has said she will make a statement on the TB programme later this autumn and that Professor Hewinson is currently carrying out an internal review of the programme. We are pleased that the Minister has asked someone of Professor Hewinson’s experience and expertise to carry out the review and we await with interest the publication of the review.”
WG: EVIDENCE OF CULL’S EFFECTIVENESS INCONCLUSIVE
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “TB in cattle is a huge challenge for all concerned and distressing for farmers who have to deal with it in their herds. Part of the solution to the problem is people’s willingness to work together, both in Government and the industry.
“The Wales TB Eradication programme is built on co-operation, with three regional eradication boards working at a local level to ensure policies are developed collaboratively and communicated effectively.
“We have outlined in our Programme for Government we will not permit the culling of badgers as part of measures to deal with bovine TB.
“Recent scientific studies did not provide conclusive evidence that culling badgers alone would reduce incidence levels in cattle herds.
“It has been proven that more infection is transmitted within species than between species, which suggests that controlling transmission among cattle is a priority in the strategy for eliminating TB.
“When the Intensive Action Area (IAA) was established in 2010 with additional measures introduced into the High West TB area, 27.1% of herds were restricted due to TB control. At the end of June 2021, 14.5% of herds were restricted, constituting a decrease in herd prevalence between then and now of 46%.
“We are committed to undertaking a review of the current TB eradication programme, and we will announce a refreshed approach later this year.
“All aspects of the programme will be considered, and we will undertake a consultation in the Autumn to inform future policy.”
VACCINATION AND THE FUTURE
The irony is that a largely effective vaccine already exists.
The BCG vaccination given to humans is 70% effective when used to immunise cattle. The vaccine uses the TB bacteria to provoke an immune response. Once it’s used, however, tests cannot detect the difference between cattle successfully inoculated and infected cattle.
Therefore, vaccinating cows with BCG is banned in most countries, enabling vets to continue to use the PPD skin test to diagnose the disease in cattle.
Scientists at the University of Surrey believe they could have a solution to that problem.
By manipulating the disease’s genetic make-up, the scientists created a BCG-minus strain. They then developed a new synthetic skin test that, like existing tests, will be positive for animals that have been exposed to TB. Unlike those tests, however, the new test will show a negative result for animals that have been vaccinated with the BCG-minus strain.
Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, said: “To control the spread of bovine TB, effective vaccination and accurate early diagnosis of the disease are critical. This new vaccine provides protection against bovine TB. It will help fight against this deadly disease that infects over 50 million cattle worldwide and is economically devastating to farmers.
“The next stage of our work will be to demonstrate that both synthetic skin test and BCG-minus vaccine works in cattle herds. If they do, then it will be possible to vaccinate cattle against TB yet retain the value of skin test for diagnosis.”
Economic value of red meat sector rises
HE VALUE of the iconic beef, lamb and pork sectors to the Welsh economy rose in 2020, as consumers turned to local, sustainable, quality food during the COVID pandemic, according to analysis by Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC).New figures from the Welsh Government ‘Aggregate Agricultural Output and Income’ report show that the total value of agricultural output in Wales for 2020 is projected to stand at £1.7billion – a 6.2% (or £99 million) increase on the provisional figure for 2019.
Cattle and sheep account for 44% of this total at £750million; the highest proportion recorded since 2016. The agricultural output value for Wales’s pig sector also increased (by 34.3% or £2 million) to a value of £8 million.
The figures reflect the strength of the livestock sector in Wales and sit in contrast to Total Income From Farming (TIFF) figures for the UK as a whole newly released by Defra. Although the TIFF figures are a different form of measuring farm production, the UK data concurs that the livestock sector has had a strong year, but in other parts of Britain, this was more than offset by poor harvests in the arable sector.
Demand for beef and lamb have been strong in the domestic retail market since the immediate aftermath of the first COVID lockdown in spring 2020. After initial market volatility, marketing campaigns by HCC and other bodies encouraged consumers to recreate restaurant meals at home.
Over the past 12 months, domestic retail sales of lamb and beef have trended consistently higher, with spending on lamb 20% higher than the previous year. Sales at independent high street butchers are also strong.
Research shows many demographic groups, including families with children, buying more beef and lamb than previously, and turning to quality home-grown produce.
HCC Data Analyst Glesni Phillips said, “The strong demand for red meat from the domestic consumer has helped drive market prices for beef and lamb at Welsh livestock markets in the second half of 2020 and into the early months of 2021.
“It’s no surprise, therefore, to see that the overall value of the industry is projected to have grown. We have seen inflation in the costs on farmers, which offset some of the gains from improved market price; however, it’s heartening to see consumers’ support for quality Welsh produce.“Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef remain key drivers of our rural economy, and given their excellent brand reputation, they act as flagship products for the growing Welsh food and drink sector.”Further analysis of the aggregate output and income figures for Welsh farms are available in HCC’s latest monthly market bulletin.