The UK government is considering compensating farmers amid warnings they could be forced to slaughter a “large percentage” of British sheep they may be unable to sell under a no-deal Brexit.
Brexit minister Stephen Barclay failed to rule out such a mass slaughter, saying only that officials were looking at what they could do to help farmers if they faced a sudden rupture in trade with the EU after Britain leaves on 31 October.
Labour shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman also claimed on Wednesday the government had “no-deal contingency plan that would require the slaughter and burial of up to nine million sheep.”
Barclay told MPs it was better for Britain to leave without a deal than not leave at all, suggesting the government was prepared to accept but would try to alleviate its potentially devastating impact on livestock farmers and their flocks.
Barclay also said the chances of a no-deal Brexit were “under-priced,” refusing to back Boris Johnson, who he backs for the Tory leadership, in his controversial claim the odds are “a million to one.”
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warned earlier this month that leaving without a deal could see new checks and restrictions immediately imposed on UK exports to the rest of Europe.
They fear farmers could be left with no market for their meat, and the NFU said many could end up going out of business and considering slaughtering their flocks.
Asked if the NFU was “wrong” at a Brexit committee hearing in parliament, Barclay did not rule out or play down such fears.
I understand that Defra has a no-deal contingency plan that would require the slaughter and burial of up to 9 million sheep.
— Jenny Chapman (@JennyChapman) July 17, 2019
Instead Barclay highlighted farming and environment minister Michael Gove’s plans for “specific intervention measures” for sheep farmers and a compensation scheme for all livestock farmers.
Barclay called the sheep meat sector an “outlier” for its reliance on European sales, with 97% of exports heading to Europe.
He also said many farmers had voted for Brexit, with some who “welcome the opportunities” from leaving but admitted there were widespread “concerns” in the sheep sector.
Minette Batters, NFU president, said earlier this month that Brexit must to be done in an “orderly manner” with an agreement if it was going to happen at all.
“If you can’t get your lamb into the European Market that puts you into oversupply,” she told Sky News.
“That means that you will have many farmers going out of business and indeed you would have to look at slaughtering quite a large percentage of the national sheep flock.”
Labour shadow farming and environment minister Sue Hayman has called on leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to rule out a no-deal Brexit that could “destroy British farming,” but both appear to shifting towards a hard Brexit.
She told HuffPost UK last week it would be “truly depressing and utterly appalling” if farmers had to “needlessly destroy sheep due to not being able to sell to European markets.”
The department for the environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) was not immediately available for comment.