I grew up not in the south-west, but in God's own country in the north-east. I lived in a small village outside Darlington that has sadly become a suburb. I shall explain why this is important to the south-west in a moment. It was surrounded by market gardens and by arable and dairy farms. My next-door neighbour raised Labradors as a hobby so we would occasionally visit the large Winyard estate on Teesside. My happiest childhood days were in the summer months, when the sun always seemed to shine. We would cross neighbouring farmland dressed in T-shirts, shorts and wellies with at least four Labradors who, for a bit of extra excitement, would occasionally set up a rabbit. I must add that they never caught them. That is one reason why it was such a great joy to be invited by the Prime Minister to serve as the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in this House. The post allows me to get involved in issues of intense personal interest.
Having listened to this debate, I understand that these issues are of immense interest to hon. Members who represent rural constituencies. I compliment Mr. Heath on securing the debate. He and Mr. Paice among others have drawn attention to the lack of debate on such matters in Government time. We now have time that can be allocated to such debates. There will be a debate in Government time on food on
My able predecessor, Lord Rooker, brought to the job not only a tremendous level of experience, having served in the post for a number of years, but a depth of understanding for and empathy with farmers, which was much appreciated. Having a Minister responsible for this policy area in this House means that we will have more opportunity to debate these issues. I will make such representations to my good friends in the Whips Office.
At the outset, I acknowledge the essential job that farmers in the south-west do for us all. They have a strong tradition of producing quality food that we all enjoy. I accept that they often work under difficult conditions. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome began by commenting on the weather. I know that last year's harvest was particularly difficult with about twice the normal level of rainfall in the region. He alluded to the serious flooding in October and December. He may know that a small Environment Agency project is underway to gauge the extent of the problem and to discover how changing the management of agricultural land could control run-off when there is heavy rainfall. If he does not know about that, I can provide him with details after the debate.
But it is not all bad news. Despite the poor weather, we estimate that wheat and barley production in the region have increased by almost one quarter, to 1.4 million and 611,000 tonnes respectively. As the south-west has approximately 1.8 million cattle, half a million pigs and 3.2 million sheep, livestock diseases are a serious issue for the region.
Hon. Members have not touched on bluetongue, but the threat is still present. The Government and the core group of industry stakeholders still believe that mass vaccination is best and will be rapidly achieved through a voluntary approach. Farmers must continue to vaccinate. Significant quantities of vaccine are still available, but, as I said at oral questions last week, farmers also need carefully to consider the risks and check the health and vaccination status of animals they buy from within the UK and from abroad.
I accept that bovine tuberculosis is a serious problem for farmers in the south-west. I take the matter seriously and am committed to tackling the disease. Soon after coming into the Department, I asked that among the visits to farmers and the farming community that were being discussed for me, at the very earliest opportunity I be given a chance to meet farmers who have been affected by the disease. Consequently, my second visit was to the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, who has left the Chamber, at which time I had the opportunity to listen to a group of farmers from mixed backgrounds, both tenant farmers and farm owners, who described the impact of the disease on them and their businesses.