Monday, 7 January 2013

The steaks are high

‘Spring has sprung, the grass has ris
I wonder where the birdy is?
Some say the bird is on the wing,
But that’s absurd, cos the wing is on the bird.’

Llanevan knows that Spring has arrived when James Johnston strolls onto the yard into the cool bright air and declares those words. Devoid of scarf and brandy he stands there in flat cap and with ale and welcomes the daffodils that crane their jaundice bonnets towards the five month shy sun.

Llanevan welcomes Spring this year with trepidation, however. The Schmallenberg virus has been reported to have hit 121 farms so far in the UK and although none have been confirmed in Wales, it is a nervous time. The virus has been transmitted to the ewes by a European midge believed to have been blown across the Channel by the unseasonal warm autumn weather. (A carbon copy transition that bore the Blue tongue threat of a few years ago). The virus cripples un-born lambs in the womb and makes it difficult or impossible for the ewe to give birth. In order to save the mother the lamb’s limbs need to broken and only then can it be brought into the open air. If the lamb is born by the ewe it dies a few hours later. Thankfully my first lamb has been born and it is a hopeful sign for the rest of the flock.

The lamb, born to Lisa the Ryeland ewe, is a picture of health, although it’s solid body, square shoulders and horn stubs suggest that it is the legacy of Tap ‘n’ Go: and not the intended offspring of one of the five Speckled Faced rams bought for the very purpose of breeding. But at a time of such unknown peril it is churlish to be picky; a sprightly lamb is a welcome relief no matter what the parentage might be.

The threat of a virus is distasteful at any time, but especially at a point when such a strain is already weighing on the livestock of Britain.

The price of red meat is the highest for twenty years and shows no sign of dipping. The reason for this is that the numbers of livestock have dwindled dramatically over the last two decades, taking huge blows from the BSE crisis, foot and mouth and despairing farmers who have ploughed the penniless meadows in favour of cash crops. It was not long ago that desperate shepherds were unloading their sheep at RSPCA holdings declaring that they could not afford to keep their animals alive.

Yet in such reactive times it only takes a slight global shift for the tables to be substantially turned.

The emergence of superior Chinese spending has seen much of Britains imported red meat landing on their soil. Australian and New Zealand lamb that was supplementing a fair majority of the British meat market now makes a considerably shorter journey to the shores of their Asian traders. Argentina have retained much of their beef in an attempt to bring their own prices down and so steak by chop the British Isles have found themselves becoming more and more self sufficient, but without the animals to do so.

Farmers would have been hoping for an abundance of lambs with a view to flooding the future market with sheep, now they stand powerless, unsure whether the pregnant ewes carry duff cargo.

Yet farming is a fickle business. Six years ago, after suffering a dreadful spell in the market doldrums, the price of lamb swung skywards. To cash in on the favourable prices and to ease the pain of the penniless years, many farmers killed pregnant ewes obtaining an eye watering price for a previously worthless sheep, yet scything down a generation before it was born. That generation, and the many others it would have created, are notable by their absence.

Farming still faces the same old questions and uncertainties, but it seems they become keener by the season. Is it too extraordinary to suggest that sheep and cattle will only be seen in nature reserves or referred to as extinct animals of yester year? It is not an extreme suggestion with so many issues obscuring the scene.

Many farmers are market nomads, never satisfied to ride out the bleak in hope for the bright. The potato phenomenon is a classic example. Buoyed by the endless possibility of the humble spud and a nation’s love of chips, the potato trade turned red hot. Salivating farmers watching the market graph head for the heavens, bought up expensive equipment and ploughed the grazing fields in favour of the spud seed. The band wagon wheels sagged under its many passengers. Times, for a while, were good, but soon the market was awash and the graph started to dip.

Nine years ago, post foot and mouth, a carcass of beef could be bought for £1.80 a kilo, barely enough return to warrant keeping cattle at all and many beef farmers sold their herds and went in search of cash crops. Now the average is £3.30 a kilo. Those that stuck to their guns are reaping the rewards, those that didn’t are still searching. Farming moves in a circle. You can guarantee that when the chips are down if you KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON you’ll return to the point of prosperity previously realised.

Yet if the farmer feels the need for change the skill is to twist into a new phenomenon before anyone realises it will be just that. The current trend is with wheat, cornering the bread and bovine feed market, but the phenomenon for the future is timber. Whisper it quietly though or else everyone will want a piece of the pie and soon we will not be able to see the wood for the trees.

Yet an island rich in trees would at least please a few animals. The cattle and sheep would welcome it. They’d have something to hide within giving them a chance to prolong the inevitable: before they’re hunted to extinction.

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