UFU: Brexit cull of 45,000 NI cattle is ‘scaremongering’

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The Ulster Farmers Union has branded as “scaremongering” predictions that 45,000 Northern Ireland diary cattle could be culled after a no-deal Brexit

A special BBC Two Newsnight report cited sources as making the claim, in a situation where new higher tariffs are applied to British milk after a no-deal Brexit.

Northern Ireland is especially at risk, it is claimed, because about a third of its dairy produce is processed in the south, which would continue to be part of the EU.

The story was broken in a special 19 minute report by BBC TWO’s Newsnight programme, citing a number of industry sources.

However, speaking on the BBC Nolan Show this morning, Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) President Ivor Ferguson strongly rejected the claim.

Although he affirmed his group believes a no-deal Brexit would be bad for NI farming, he branded the prediction of 45,000 cattle being killed as “scaremongering”.

Nobody in the UFU would hold that view he said, questioning the credentials of the unnamed sources BBC Newsnight based their report on.

In a no deal Brexit scenario where it might become difficult to supply NI milk to the south, he said, an obvious alternative would be to sell the milk into England instead, he said.

In a formal statement, the UFU said it is not anticipating a cull of dairy cattle in Northern Ireland following a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Ferguson said: “A no-deal Brexit will be catastrophic for NI farming. Steep export tariffs, a zero per cent tariff on agriculture goods coming from ROI, increased checks and regulations will all cause huge disruption and a logistical nightmare for family-run farm businesses. We are working hard to find ways to mitigate the potential damage of a no-deal. Reciprocal tariffs and deficiency payments to farms businesses, to help address farm gate price collapse, are starting points and at the moment, the most reasonable options. However, we continue to actively lobby politicians and the government so they understand the seriousness of a no-deal situation and the importance of avoiding it.

But he added: “At this point in time, we are not even talking about a large cull of animals and we don’t anticipate that we will get to this point. In the event of a no-deal, the dairy industry will find ways to cope if there is a surplus of milk, although it’s not likely to be straightforward and we would expect disruption. Possibly there is capacity in our local processing sector to absorb any extra milk or we may be able to send it to GB. There will be other options and it is irresponsible to jump straight to culling cows as a solution.”

He said the continued uncertainty around Brexit and the ‘will there or won’t there be a deal’ speculation isn’t helping farmers or their businesses.

“The culling of dairy cows is speculation and a result of ongoing Brexit uncertainty. The UFU has always argued that the UK must leave the EU in an orderly way, which will provide certainty and allow farmers to plan for their businesses accordingly.” he said.

TUV leader Jim Allister responded that the BBC was “plumbing new depths in anti-Brexit propaganda”.

“When even the Brexit hostile leadership of the UFU repudiates BBC’s latest Brexit scare story you know how preposterous it is,” he said.

He added: “What those who peddle this nonsense never want to discuss is the opportunity for N.I. agriculture which arises when the Republic prices itself out of the GB market once it is required to pay the matching U.K. tariffs, arising from the EU threat to impose such on British produce.

“Currently the Republic relies on sales to the GB market for the survival of its agri-food industry. In a scenario of mutual tariffs the Republic’s sales to GB will collapse, leaving a huge marketing opportunity for N.I. produce. Alternative outlets within our own U.K. will open up for N.I. as we step forward to fill the void left by ROI being priced out of the market.”

BBC Newsnight reported that with the UK due to leave the EU on 31 October, an anonymous source had told the programme that the culling of NI cattle could start within weeks of that date, if it happened without the UK and EU agreeing a deal.

The programme was told that officials and ministers from the London-based Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been warned by a source about the potential for a “major cull of dairy cattle, but they are not listening”.

However Defra appeared to place little weight on the claim.

In a statement Defra said: “A widespread cull of livestock is absolutely not something that the government anticipates nor is planning for in the event of no-deal.

“We will always back Britain and Northern Ireland’s great farmers and make sure that Brexit works for them.

“The government is boosting its preparations to ensure we are fully prepared to leave the EU on 31 October, whatever the circumstances.”

But another industry insider told Newsnight that despite their warnings, there had been a “metaphorical shrug of the shoulders from ministers”.

At present the average trade price of a litre of British milk is 26p. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, where Newsnight said 19p tariffs could be applied, that price would be pushed up to 45p in the Republic.

Customs checks and paperwork could add further complications, and it may no longer be legal to mix milk from the north and south.

The fear among producers in Northern Ireland, Newsnight reported, is that if no agreement is reached and traditional trading relationships with the south become difficult, the NI will be left with a glut of milk that it will not be able to process or sell.

An industry source told Newsnight: “Dairy herds have to be milked, it’s not like you can leave the milk in the cows they would bloat up and ultimately die.”

Late last year the Ulster Farmers’ Union said the latest set of UK Government’s Brexit ‘no deal’ technical papers reinforced the importance of the UK leaving the EU with a deal in place.

UFU president, Ivor Ferguson said at that time: “The latest notices include one which relates to the export of animals and animal products and suggests we would face a cliff-edge scenario if we leave the EU with no deal. This is completely unacceptable and would be disastrous for farming in Northern Ireland, particularly for our sheep industry, and for the economy. The papers confirm what we already knew: a ‘no deal’ Brexit is bad for farming.”