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Examination of Witnesses

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:31 am on 11th February 2020.

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Christopher Price:

We should do it, first, for economic reasons. These breeds were bred to be in a British landscape. They can survive in parts of the country that other breeds cannot, or cannot without significant inputs. In many parts of the country, people are farming the wrong animals and are doing so expensively, because they are using certain inputs to support them. We need some help in getting farmers to transition away from the old way of doing things into going back to native breeds.

Native breeds can also provide a wider range of products than many other breeds. I mentioned wools, skins, horns and so on, which all have markets, if people think about it, or are incentivised to start thinking about it rather more. There is a role for Government in that.

Then there is the environmental side of things. The grassland habitats that we so cherish are there because they were grazed by certain animals over generations. If we are going to restore those habitats, the easiest, most straightforward way to do it is by using the animals that created them in the first place.

Lastly, there is the social side. Many of these breeds are part of our history. White Park cows came over Dogger island from mainland Europe before Stonehenge was built. They were part of the Cistercian monks’ currency. Some of the earliest Welsh laws are about how you regulate and use those animals. Herdwick sheep were bred to live on top of hills in the Lake district. Swaledales were bred to be a bit further down the fells. They are an immense part of our culture.

Those are all reasons for supporting them. In terms of how you support them, I would be reluctant for us to go down a simple headage route; I think that would just create the wrong sort of incentives. If a farmer chooses to use native breeds to graze for particular conservation purposes that do not bring him or her a direct financial benefit, that is about the public benefit, which should be rewarded, but it is more about making sure that we have the right infrastructure in place.

There is a lot to do with promoting local produce. We have talked a bit about creating local markets. Some of the more savvy farmers I was talking about are doing an excellent job of that, and part of their brand is selling local breeds and local products from those breeds within a fairly narrow radius—30-odd miles. That is where the premium comes from. It is not for everyone, but people are starting to do it, which is interesting.

Perhaps the single most important thing—we touched on this a bit in the earlier session—is abattoirs. For many of the people that I work for and represent, abattoirs are at least as important an issue as support going forward. We have huge numbers of people who are producing the right animals to the right standards in a very environmentally friendly way. You hear people talking about how their motivation in life is to ensure that their animals have a life worth living and then only one bad day—the day they go to the abattoir—and you have people who want to buy the products, but the whole thing is being stymied in significant parts of the country because there is no abattoir that can cope. If there is an abattoir, it generally will not be able to take the small numbers of non-standard animals and give you back the by-products—the horns, the skins and so on. In many cases, there is no abattoir at all.

If we are talking about short-term Government capital investments, it seems to me that there is a desperate need to invest in pop-up abattoirs or mobile abattoirs. There are practical problems with all of that, but if I could get anything across to the Committee, it would be the need to make sure that we have an abattoir network that is fit for purpose over the next few years, and for the Government to invest in creating that. It does not need to be a long-term investment; once it is there, the market can function and support it, but it is getting us there that matters.