A few weeks ago, an unusually late and heavy snowfall, accompanied by extensive drifting in the uplands of Wales and other areas of Britain, hit the farming industry and visited disastrous consequences on sheep farmers in all those hill areas. There were dramatic, heartbreaking reports in the media of farmers digging sheep out from under 10-foot drifts of snow—many of the sheep were obviously near death—and the despair of knowing that hundreds more sheep were dying under the snow.
Today the snow has gone. It was a lovely sunny morning as I walked over Westminster bridge today. The images of despair have disappeared from our screens. As the world continues on its way, those images have inevitably disappeared from the minds of most of the British people, but they have not disappeared from my mind, probably because I was an upland sheep farmer for most of my life.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House. Given the 22% fall in lamb prices last year and the fact that, as he rightly points out, this year’s unseasonal snowfall has made the situation acute, is there not a duty on the processors and the large retailers to pay a fair price for this produce?
I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman, although today I will try to avoid dealing with some of the consequential commercial issues relating to the current position. What I want to address—I will come to this—is what I see as the disconnect between hill sheep farming today and what the wider general population thinks. If I can, I will keep away altogether from what might be deemed to be political issues, where there might be divisions of views.
The impact of the recent snowfall on the sheep-farming uplands remains, despite the snow having gone. It has not gone away with the snow. Today it is not about digging out sheep from under snowdrifts; it is more about collecting and disposing of the dead bodies of sheep and planning how to put businesses back together. I am probably one of few MPs—I might not be the only one—who has been out digging sheep out from under 10-foot snowdrifts. I particularly remember 1963, when the United Kingdom experienced far more snow and far colder conditions, and for much longer than this year. I was a teenager working on the family farm when the drifting snow buried hundreds of our sheep as they sheltered near walls and hedges. My father and I spent days searching under the snow for them. It was heartbreaking work. Most heartbreaking of all was having to stop at nightfall, knowing that there were still hundreds of sheep asphyxiating beneath our feet.
What was particularly devastating about the recent snowfall was that it was so late in the year. In 1963, the snow fell on Boxing day and lasted until early March, but this year it fell at the end of March, which is the traditional lambing season in the uplands. As Mr Llwyd has pointed out, the sheep sector was already facing what the Prince’s Trust called a “perfect storm” of negative influences in March. I shall not go into all the details, but the upland sheep farmers were already facing severe problems, and the impact of what has happened has been devastating.
I want to make it clear why I have sought today’s debate. Initially, I had not intended to make any public comment. Agriculture in my constituency is devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. Naturally, I was in conversation with friends and members of the farming unions about what had happened, and at first I was heartened by the fact that the Welsh Government Minister had arranged to come to Montgomeryshire to meet local farmers and union leaders. However, when farmers contacted me after the meeting, I was horrified by the Minister’s approach, which had been totally unsympathetic and dismissive. Everyone was deeply upset by that.
I felt that that was unacceptable, and I discussed the matter with the Assembly Member colleague in Montgomeryshire, Russell George. Together, we set about seeking to change the tone of the debate. I posted my thoughts on my blog, “A View from Rural Wales”, which had quite an impact, and resolved to seek a debate in this House as soon as Parliament returned from the Easter recess. My Assembly colleague raised an urgent question in the Welsh Assembly. For whatever reason, the Welsh Government Minister responded with a far more sympathetic approach, and made a realistic and positive statement. I congratulate him on that. The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr Heath also published a statement here last Thursday, and again it was realistic and positive. So the terms of the debate have changed to some extent. It is clear to me that both Parliaments, in Cardiff Bay and in Westminster, now recognise the scale of the disaster that has struck upland sheep farmers.
I should also make it clear that I am not calling for more compensation or more subsidy for sheep farmers. Some might wish to do that, but I do not want to do so today. There will be other debates about agricultural support, and in particular about how British agriculture can remain competitive with the subsidised agricultural systems across the European Union. There might be an occasion for a debate in Wales about the controversial issue of hill farming subsidies, but I do not want to deal with those matters now. My aim today is to address what seems to be a growing disconnect between the business and tradition of farming in the uplands and the rest of the population.
I am glad that we are having this debate today. What is the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the level of support given to farmers in other parts of the UK, given that agriculture is a devolved matter? I have seen correspondence from representatives of various countryside organisations in Wales pointing out to the Minister in Cardiff that there are advantages to be had in other parts of the UK. What is the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the situation?
I have not made such an assessment. I have seen two of the statements, but I have not looked at what has happened in Scotland or in Northern Ireland.
I know that there are differences, however, and it is inevitable that they will be pointed out. At one stage, I thought that I might do that today, but I specifically decided against it because it would inevitably have led to the kind of debate that I did not want. I am probably a bit unusual in that I did not want a debate with a great deal of confrontation. Instead, I want to highlight the issue so that people can understand what has happened.
I want to say something about the sort of things that happened when the snow fell and re-formed itself into huge drifts. Yesterday, in a sort of surgery, I talked to union leaders and upland farmers at Welshpool livestock market. I spoke to one farmer who had just sent 72 dead sheep away in a lorry. He had also picked up another 72 dead sheep and they were awaiting collection. That illustrates the scale of what is happening. To make a terrible situation worse, he will have to pay several thousand pounds to have them taken away. That is not an uncommon experience.
On Sunday night, I switched the television on and watched the excellent Adam Henson covering the scale of the deaths on “Countryfile”. I caught the latter part of the debate. There was a large pile of carcases in the corner of the yard, but it was noticeable that the image was blurred to accommodate the sensitivity of the viewers. It was felt that they should not have to see all those dead sheep piled up like that. However, the vision of piles of dead sheep is not blurred for the owners of the dead sheep. For them, it is all too real. If people are to understand the impact, they need to know what is happening.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very timely debate. From experience, he will understand the horror that happened in Northern Ireland when 20,000 dead animals were buried beneath the snow. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that many of these farmers are heartbroken, not only because of the death of the sheep but because of what it meant for their future as well as their past.
That was the very point I was coming to.
I spoke to another farmer who came to see me with his wife yesterday, desperately worried about how his family business was going to survive. Normally, his flock produces 340 lambs to sell in the autumn. This year, he will have but 120, and some of those will have to be retained as replacement stock. The only chance of survival will be from off-farm income, and so many others are in the same position right across Britain.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech on an extremely important subject. From what I hear from my sheep farmers in Teesdale, I know that they face similar issues. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the media coverage. It seems to me that we have heard endless news from the United States over the last fortnight, but extremely little coverage of this problem. I hope that his excellent speech will be heard beyond “Farming Today”.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so gracious in giving way. One issue brought to our attention in Northern Ireland—the same will be true of Wales, too—is the fact that building up all the pedigrees of some of these sheep herds can take 10 or 20 years, which makes them quite expensive. To lose them all in one go is a tremendous tragedy for the families concerned. Does that underline the fact that there must be help from both the Government and from the Welsh Assembly?
The point about losing whole flocks is an important one, in view of the breeding that has gone into them. I know from my experience when I was actively sheep farming that one particular line in the flock could be hugely valued. Along that particular line, it was possible to get to know the sheep as individuals. When all those sheep are just suddenly taken, it is devastating.
This is such a wide-ranging debate and I could have picked a thousand different aspects to discuss, but I want briefly to cover two further aspects and I ask the Minister to help me on one point of clarity. First, there is the emotional impact of what has happened. Working with livestock is not the same as working in other forms of industry. Animals are living creatures and farmers, in a funny sort of way, get to know them as individuals. My flock comprised about 1,000 sheep, but there were lots of individuals among them whom I got to know. It is not the same as producing widgets, for example, because it is dealing with living animals.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I represent a constituency in Northern Ireland that was badly affected by the snow. Many upland farmers in the Mournes and in Slieve Croob were affected. I travelled through tunnels of snow to visit those farmers, and on one particular farm, I saw about 29 ewes and lambs lying under a tarpaulin. When that was pulled back, I could see that they were all dead. I also noticed collapsed livestock sheds. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, because of the bond between the farmer and his sheep, we need a particular taskforce to deal with the restoration and renewal of upland farms for upland farmers?
Again, I agree with that intervention and I feel certain that the agriculture departments in the three devolved countries and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be doing that very thing. I certainly hope so; perhaps the Minister will address that point in his response.
My hon. Friend is very generous in taking interventions. Does he agree that we need to put this issue in the much broader context of the very difficult time that sheep farmers are having in general? Across the Bailey and Bewcastle valleys in my constituency, there have been two years of horror with poached soil, fluke and the snow coming at the end of that. If we are to retain the fabric of small farms, which I think we would all like to do, we really need to think over the next two to three years of what kind of measures can be put in place—apart from the particular issue of snow—to preserve small farming for the future.
That is a very good point. Earlier I mentioned the description by the Prince’s Trust of the circumstances that we were experiencing before the snowfall. A number of elements, connected with the weather, the Schmallenberg disease and other issues, had combined to put the sheep in a very difficult position. The businesses of the farmers who were hit by the huge snowfall, however, have been put under real threat.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue of the plight of sheep farmers; my Pennine constituency was also badly hit by the snow. Does he agree, however, that sheep farmers were already struggling because a wet summer had reduced the quality of hay feed? Some of them told me that they were having to rely on sheep nuts and sugar beet shreds, both of which cost about £7 a bag. They were already challenged by the financial cost of making up for a very wet summer before the snow hit.
I agree, and I was interested by my hon. Friend’s reference to sheep nuts. Lorries have not been able to deliver them, and everyone else wants them to feed to their cattle. A huge shortage of food has made a disastrous position even worse.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, to which he brings considerable experience. As well as the problems caused by energy and food costs, there is the problem that many small businesses were encouraged to diversify into tourism, which has also been affected by last year’s long periods of adverse weather. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a special review of the situation, covering not just agriculture but tourism and other aspects of the rural environment?
I do agree. I contemplated the possibility of expanding the debate to include other businesses—and, while tourism is the obvious example, other businesses will have been affected—but decided that that would weaken the thrust of the point I wanted to make. I do not seek in any way to belittle the issue, but I wanted to concentrate on something else today.
Most of the livestock that we are discussing would eventually have been sent to an abattoir. Strangely, that is accepted among farmers as being the natural order of things, but what happened in this instance was not the natural order, and it has been hugely stressful.
During the most recent foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, I was Chair of the National Assembly’s Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee. For several months, I spent most days—and it often continued late into the night, until the early hours of the morning—talking to people in distress who were unable to cope with the fact that all their animals, many of them prized animals, were being put down and burnt as a consequence of contact with the disease. Interestingly—I say that it was interesting now, but it was tragic then—it was not the farmers who were ringing me, but their wives and parents, who were deeply worried about the men. It is mostly men who work in that industry. Livestock farming is a lonesome life, and those wives and parents were hugely worried about the mental state of the farmers and about what they might do. Indeed, the tragedy is that some of them did the very worst.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Will he join me in welcoming the fact that the Welsh Minister, Alun Davies, has asked the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution to tackle the problem? The institution can speak to farmers and their families individually, and offer them the support to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
I was not going to make that point myself, and I thank the hon. Lady for making it. I am very pleased that the Welsh Government have given half a million pounds to charities that are in a position to identify and support those who are suffering from stress. They can do that better than a Government could ever do it. Although I was disappointed by the approach taken in the first three or four days, I think that the Minister’s response since then has been entirely positive, and I congratulate him on it.
The fact that animals have died under the snow is not the only issue, although that has received a lot of attention. There are also the issues of the other animals that have died, the loss of the grass that has been killed off by the snow and the consequent widespread shortage of feed.
Many people who do not understand hill farming do not understand that hill ewes will not readily take to artificial feed, as lowland breeds do. There will be heavy losses from snow fever and twin lamb disease, and as a result of animals that simply will not eat feed when their natural grass has gone. Huge numbers of animals will be dying from mineral deficiencies. The inevitable shortage of milk will result in lambs succumbing to illness and dying, too. They will be crushed into confined spaces, where there is much greater incidence of disease. Lambs will die in large numbers of joint ill and infectious scour, which can go straight through a flock. I remember when I had my whole flock in as a result of adverse weather conditions, but I had to turn them out into the snow, because disease arises when the animals are crammed into small spaces. Hill farmers are not used to that. They are geared up to lambing in April and lambing out. All of this adds to the direct losses from snow.
The Governments in Cardiff Bay and Westminster have responded with statements, both of which are positive and hugely welcome. I want to inject that positive note into this debate.
The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the concept of cynefin—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend Mr Llwyd tells me that the word in English is hefting. There will be difficulties and costs involved in replacing these sheep. This will not be a one-off incident; the effects will be felt for many years.
I entirely agree. I remember that when foot and mouth disease spread on to the Brecon Beacons, huge flocks were lost, and were lost for ever.
Most of the farmers I have spoken to are unsure what to do with their dead animals, of which they have large numbers. Normally, they would have them collected, at considerable cost, and taken away to be incinerated, but the National Fallen Stock Company could not reach the farms because of the snow and the farmers were told by the Welsh Assembly Minister that he was considering a derogation from the relevant EU regulation to allow farmers to bury dead animals on their farms. My understanding, however, is that that derogation is a matter for local government and that there was no requirement for farmers to wait for an announcement from the Welsh Minister. All that was needed was an agreement with the relevant local authority. That situation seems odd and I find it confusing. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the position.
I am grateful to Glyn Davies for securing this timely and important debate. It is also good to have so many colleagues present, expressing their concerns about the communities in their areas. We have heard from Members representing at least three of the nations of the United Kingdom. We have heard from Mr Llwyd and the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams), for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) from Wales. From Northern Ireland, we have heard from the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie). From England, we have heard from the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney).
They all expressed the point of view of their constituents: a sense of horror at what has happened and a sense of the need to do everything we can to support a very vulnerable group of people and a vulnerable industry, because the last few weeks have been a disaster for many farmers in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. To experience such severe spring snowfall is almost unprecedented. We have never seen 10-ft drifts this late in the year. The point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire was making, and others were reflecting, is that it hit some of our most economically vulnerable farmers at their busiest time, with the lambing season in full swing. No wonder there are people who are experiencing genuine trauma as a consequence.
As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, in the past few days the weather has improved, but when I visited Cumbria recently I saw a lot of snow still lying in the affected areas. Until that clears, which may take a considerable time in the highest areas, we will not be able to quantify the damage fully, but we know that in some individual cases it will be enormous.
I should stress that this problem is very geographically limited. There are some farms next to each other, one of which has been devastated and the next hardly touched. It is remarkable that some farms were very deeply affected and others were not. But for those that are affected there will be, as we already know, many thousands of dead sheep and lambs. As the hon. Member for Arfon said, although he said it in Welsh and I shall not attempt to do the same, a lot of those will be hefted sheep. They have been bred for generations on some of the roughest, highest, most isolated parts of the fells and uplands, and the loss of those animals only adds to the weight of the blow. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire told the House, he has had first-hand experience of the emotional trauma and the financial pain caused by losses on that scale.
I visited the north-west of England 10 days ago, to see the damage for myself. It was deeply shocking to see the effect on individual farmers. There is a real sense of devastation and there are people with massive worries about the future.
That position was compounded by another point that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire made, about the burial arrangements and whether the EU burial regulations are robust enough to deal with those very exceptional circumstances. What is the Minister’s view on that?
I will return to that, if I may, in just a moment.
I met farmers who have lived their entire lives in the uplands. These are not soft people. These are not weak people. These are some of the strongest, hardest men and women that you would care to meet in this country. They were feeling quite clearly devastated by the position they now find themselves in. As Jim Shannon knows, I was in Northern Ireland a few days ago as well, just talking to people about their experiences there—not my responsibility, as he will appreciate, in terms of the devolved settlement—and I heard exactly the same stories; exactly the same pain was being felt.
I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. The Minister is quite right that a lot of the effect of the snow was very local. Certainly in the Radnor forest in my constituency it was particularly difficult. I want to make the point that the whole sheep industry has suffered a very long period of very severe weather, which has left a lot of those ewes very weak going into lambing, so it is not just the people that have been affected by snow but almost the whole of the sheep industry that has had a very difficult time.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In those extreme conditions of very heavy snowfall, with violent winds—in Cumbria, violent easterly winds coming in off the sea and causing the drifting—the sheep did what sheep do, which is to turn their backs to the wind and walk, and they found themselves trapped against walls or obstacles or under drifts. But what compounded that was that our sheep flocks, sadly, are not in good condition—because of the weather, because of events over many months now, because of the fact that, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, fluke is a real problem at the moment. Many issues have come together in a concatenation that is causing the difficulties that many of our livestock farmers face.
It was a pleasure to have the Minister in my constituency last week so that he could hear at first hand from the farmers in the area what the issues were. He will have heard from the farmers, but also from elected representatives from the Assembly, from
Members of Parliament and from Members of the European Parliament, what measures the Northern Ireland Assembly had taken to help to address some of the issues for the farmers in Northern Ireland. Will he be able to use those examples to help other regional bodies, such as the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament?
It is important that we all learn from one another. The answers will not be the same in every part of the United Kingdom, and the proportional scale of difficulties will be different. We must listen to what each other are doing and hopefully come towards the right solution, but also listen to what the farmers themselves in the constituent parts of the United Kingdom are telling us. Certainly that is what I wanted to do with regard to England. I cannot speak for what happened in Northern Ireland and say whether it was the right solution, and similarly for Wales. I can see what has been done, but it seemed to me that my responsibility was to listen to the farmers and their representatives in England, and to do what they asked me to do so far as I could, in order to mitigate the difficulties that farmers were facing.
My constituent, John Warren, has specifically asked me to raise this point with the Minister. He is concerned that in Scotland the National Fallen Stock Company was used to distribute state aid. He asked me to urge the Minister not to go down the same route in England. He was concerned that if he did, the aid would not necessarily reach the right farmers and the farmers who had been most severely affected. He asked if a more direct mechanism might be used for distributing the aid that will be consequent on the losses due to the bad weather.
I will come back to that point in a moment if I may, but the most important thing is that we reach those farmers who are severely affected, irrespective of whether they are registered with the National Fallen Stock Company. I want to make that absolutely clear, and I hope that that will help the hon. Lady’s constituent.
I want to put on record how grateful I am to the local NFU in Cumbria and the farmers themselves. I will mention Alistair Mackintosh and Robin Jenkinson in Corney Fell who gave their time to explain the consequences to me and to help me to understand what they were up against. I strongly feel that as a Minister one of the best ways to respond to a problem of this kind is simply to talk to people and see for oneself, and then, I hope, take the appropriate decisions.
I also want to put on record the strong impression that I had in Cumbria that the farming community and the wider rural community have responded in a positive and big way. A lot of mutual support went on and continues to go on. People helped one another, and farmers who were not affected searched for sheep on their neighbours’ holdings when they realised that they were in trouble. That is the country way and it is what we expect, but it was happening.
People who were not connected with farming also lent their support. I will mention one group of people, an organisation that occasionally we have differences of opinion with. It was pointed out to me how profoundly helpful the RSPCA officers in the area had been, lending a hand and getting stuck in, not in strict pursuance of their duties as RSPCA officers but because they cared about the animals and the farmers and wanted to do their bit.
I will also mention the banks, because they almost universally get a bad press. It was pointed out to me how helpful HSBC has been in the area and how it has gone out of its way and bent over backwards to offer local farmers support at a time when they desperately need it. I do not know whether that was universal and whether other banks followed suit, but it is important to put it on the record when people help and are prepared to be supportive.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. There has been a lot of talk about sheep, but I hope that the Minister also recognises that the dairy industry has been significantly affected. In some cases, cattle condition and milk yields have gone down as a result of the weather, so perhaps the banks and the companies that—
Order. Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that I understand that his intention is good, and why he wants to draw a parallel, but I am afraid that it is not relevant. We are on sheep farmers and we must stick to that, not start to stray into other matters, which he has done.
Of course, I am happy to take your guidance on that, Mr Speaker. I will say that in the parts of the country I visited the casualties, almost exclusively, were sheep. It was the sheep flocks that were devastated, although of course other livestock are affected in such extreme circumstances.
I also want to say—this point was made by the hon. Member for Llanelli—that charities are playing a crucial role in supporting those in real hardship, sometimes simply by acting as a compassionate friend, which is exactly what is needed by people who often lead very isolated lives. Sometimes they just need a shoulder to lean on, and I think that it is extremely important that the charities provide that.
I have received many hundreds of e-mails and letters from individual members of the public who want to support the farmers affected through donations, directly with a pick and shovel, or in the supermarkets by buying British lamb. That is a message I want to get across: one thing that every single person can do to support the British sheep meat industry, wherever they live in the country, is go out and ask the supermarkets for British lamb. I hope that is recognised as one of the most powerful things they can do. Retailers—this is something the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said—can play a part in that, not only through the price of meat, but by highlighting the quality of British lamb and sheep meat.
The Minister is absolutely right that we should be buying British lamb, and Welsh lamb, as a priority—[Interruption.] It is British, of course. Has he or his Department contacted other national Governments and Assemblies in this country to assess the impact the adverse weather has had on the sheep industry and other food industries and on the price for the consumer in the United Kingdom?
As I think I said earlier, it is actually quite difficult to assess the impact now, but of course we will continue that dialogue with the devolved Administrations. At the moment, we are still effectively dealing with an emergency situation. Many factors affect the price of meat, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but it is an assessment that we need to make, and I am happy to work with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to do that.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I understand that this is a crisis and that it takes time to assess it, but as we have discussed in the debate, a number of adverse weather conditions have impacted on the industry. Will he, working with the other Assemblies in the United Kingdom, conduct a proper assessment of the impact on food prices now, and not just for this crisis, but for previous adverse weather impacts?
As the hon. Gentleman says, there is the cumulative effect of a number of things. To be perfectly honest, this particular event, devastating though it has been for a significant number of farmers, but luckily not so many, will not in itself have a real effect on food prices, but I think that, in a wider context, what we have experienced over the past six to nine months will. We must also look at the effect that imports from other countries might be having, particularly on the price of British lamb—I will persist in saying British lamb, because I am the Minister responsible for agriculture in England as well as in the UK.
Is the Minister considering the issue of derogation, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, and should the Prime Minister not be addressing this in his review of the European Union? Should not we in this country be able to make a decision at a local level about how farmers get rid of their stock?
The answer is that we can, and I shall move on to that in moment. This is one area in which we do not have a difficulty in that respect, as I shall explain later.
Derogations have been important, not just for livestock disposal, but for the use of red diesel and the working time directive, and farmers in Cumbria and across the country have been grateful for the flexibility shown by the Government in all those derogations.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and perhaps this is an opportune time for me to set out some of the things we have done. I will not pretend that any of them provide the complete answer, but I hope that they have been of help. As he said, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has, as we have done previously, allowed farmers to use red diesel in their tractors to help grit and clear snow from public roads. That has been important in getting access to some areas. Without that derogation, I think it would be impossible to reach some isolated communities.
Importantly, we have also secured a temporary relaxation of the enforcement of the European Union drivers’ working hours, in order to ensure that essential supplies of animal feed deliveries have been able to get through. That is crucial for farmers who did not expect their sheep to need to be fed—that is despite the palatability or otherwise, and I entirely understand the point about how difficult it is to persuade a mountain sheep to suddenly switch to sheep nuts, but better that than the alternative, and it is important that those feed supplies get through.
We have also worked closely with the National Fallen Stock Company to arrange the best possible terms for the collection of dead animals. One of the most striking things is that every farmer has casualty animals and needs to call somebody to take away the carcasses. Some have skips full of 50, 60 or 70 dead animals and the cost of disposing of them individually would have mounted up and become unsupportable. It is important, therefore, that the cheapest possible bulk terms were negotiated at an early stage with the NFSC.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and others mentioned the rules for the burning or burial of livestock on farms. The rules for the disposal of carcasses are governed by the European Union’s Animal By-Products Regulations 2003, which make it illegal, normally, to dispose of a carcass on-farm. However, a specific derogation in those regulations that the UK has authorised and continues to authorise allows for the on-farm disposal of carcasses if the conditions are too difficult to get them to a collection vehicle. That applies in a number of circumstances. I reminded local authorities, who can prosecute if they believe that there has been an infringement of those regulations, that they have the capacity to take into account the individual circumstances under the derogation, and that they should apply maximum flexibility in the affected areas. I am very happy that they were able to do that. I understand that precisely that provision was also used in Wales in order to provide for the local authorities there. The local authorities had the power to do so; we simply reminded them that they had that power, because it was important.
That has been helpful for some farmers, but not for all. What struck me in Cumbria was that on some high fell farms there was no way that an animal could be buried on that sort of terrain. I can perfectly well understand the strength of feeling against pyres being built and operated on the farms, but in a way it surprised me by its intensity. It is clear that farmers did not want to be reminded of very difficult times not so long ago, when the countryside was littered with funeral pyres of dead animals. They did not want that—they wanted those dead animals off the farm. That very much influenced my view of what we should do next.
To complete the initial variations that we made, Natural England has at our request temporarily lifted some of the land management requirements that normally apply to environmental stewardship agreements, which gives farmers a bit more flexibility to deal with the impact of the recent extreme weather.
Last Thursday I made a statement to the House about the effects of the severe weather. It confirmed the latest move that we have applied in England in our programme of support for English farmers. We have made up to £250,000 available to reimburse farmers for the cost of removing sheep killed in the snow. The funds will go towards the very specific problem of removing animals that have died on-farm as a direct result of the March snowfall. I have seen some comment and some suggestion that that is not enough. It is enough, according to our best information from the National Farmers
Union—the representatives of the farmers. We have relied on the information that they have given us in order to meet the immediate needs.
Could the Minister find out whether it would be possible to get permission from the European Union to use any unspent rural development moneys to help regenerate uphill sheep farmers and their farms?
I think the situation will be different for each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, so I hesitate to give the hon. Lady an answer that might mislead her about the position in Northern Ireland. We are currently negotiating pillar two payments. We are not in a position to know what the future funding arrangements will be there. In negotiating the CAP, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very aware that the needs of upland farmers must be met because, as we have already indicated, that is an extremely vulnerable sector of the agricultural industry.
The Minister has been very generous in taking interventions. Are any other finances available from Europe that can help the regions in the midst of a crisis like the present one?
We have investigated that, and the honest answer is that there probably are not at present, because we are talking about total sums that are below the threshold level for the crisis payments. We have a further difficulty in the United Kingdom: the rebate arrangements come into play, which sometimes makes it difficult for us to avail ourselves of specific funding streams from the European Union in any case. In this instance I do not believe there is any immediate funding that we could draw on which would alleviate the situation.
To return to the scheme that I announced, the amount that I indicated reflects the very latest information on stock losses identified by the National Farmers Union. We are working closely with the NFU, the National Fallen Stock Company and other industry representatives to finalise the arrangements for funding and ensure that that goes to farmers in the worst affected areas and those who have suffered the greatest losses.
Details of the scheme and how to apply will be made public as soon as possible. Farmers should retain receipts and other documentary evidence, so that the collection of fallen stock can be verified once the scheme is under way. I hope that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland will make her constituents aware of that. It is certainly not my intention to limit payments to those who have registered with or used the National Fallen Stock Company, but I want to find the most efficient mechanism for distributing public funds so that they get to the people who need them as quickly as possible.
Funding has been made available in Northern Ireland and Scotland to meet the costs of fallen stock collection services for farmers affected by the severe weather. As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire said, the Welsh Government have taken a number of steps to help farmers, including making a donation to farming charities to assist them in supporting farming families.
I am pleased that a robust programme of support has been made available. However, I emphasise that many individual farmers will face a huge bill to replace their lost animals. We have to make that point to people who do not understand this matter. There is not only the cost of recovering and looking after rescued animals, including the extra feed costs, but the loss of a significant part this year’s lamb crop. Because of the loss of hefted ewes, a number of the surviving lambs will also have to be retained. There is therefore a cumulative effect on farmers.
It is right that we have focused on what is happening immediately on the ground in north-west England and the Welsh hills, but we also need to look towards the longer term, as has been said. In May, the Secretary of State will therefore host a summit of farming sector representatives, farming charities and banks. The meeting will highlight the financial impact that the exceptional weather—not just this event, but across the board—is having on some farm businesses. We will see what more can be done to support farmers who are struggling financially.
This is an exceptional circumstance, and I am grateful that we have had the opportunity to discuss it this evening. I make no apologies for the number of interventions that I have taken from hon. Members, because this matter is crucial to the communities that they represent and I wanted them to have replies. Farmers are by no means out of the woods yet. DEFRA officials and Ministers will remain in close contact with farmers’ organisations and those who are helping to deal with the problems on the ground. I thank them all for their tremendous efforts to deal with this huge problem. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire and other hon. Members for giving us the opportunity to discuss a matter that we should be discussing. I hope that the things that we have done have lightened the load of those who have been seriously affected by this disastrous situation.
Question put and agreed to.