Beef Crisis: Farmers step up blockade as frustration boils over

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The announcement was, as one British farmer put it, 'a body blow to an industry on its knees'. As farmers threatened to picket all the Welsh ports for several weeks, others in England and Scotland began following their lead and fighting back in the manner of French lorry drivers. Tony Heath and Clare Garner listened to their anger at the latest beef ban.

Farmers last night stepped up their campaign to prevent the importation of foreign beef, staging demonstrations and threatening to picket all the Welsh ports into the new year.

The threats came as the industry reacted angrily to the Government's latest ban on sales of beef on the bone because of BSE fears.

As farmers began driving tractors and trailers through Newton Abbot in Devon in protest at cheap imports, others reacted with anger and disbelief to the latest blow.

Richard Barter, who has 127 cattle on his farm at Bovey Tracey, in south Devon, said: "This could be the end of the line. The cost of boning is going to be put back on to the farmer."

David Hill, who rears 400 animals at his north Devon farm, said he was "astonished" by the announcement. "What concerns me primarily is that I am told 5 per cent of meat is currently on the bone. That does not sound a lot, but the announcement is bound to spread uncertainty in the mind of the housewife who is already confused as to whether to buy beef." He said it would lead to lower beef sales which were already at a level where he knew he could not make a profit in the coming year.

Around 3,000 farmers, some from as far afield as Buckinghamshire, gathered last night in Gaerwen, 20 miles from the Anglesey port of Holyhead, in protest at what they described as the lack of progress over "cheap" meat imports.

As anger intensified, a rota of 24-hour pickets was drawn up and plans were being laid to blockade all the ports for the next five weeks. The proposals involve four links between Ireland and Wales. Regular services run from Dublin to Holyhead, from Rosslare to Fishguard and Pembroke Dock, and from Cork to Swansea.

Bob Parry, president of the Farmers' Union of Wales, urged them to act responsibly and legally but said they should be congratulated on their initiative.

It was not clear last night how they would implement the blockades nor whether other traffic would be affected but at least one lorry carrying vegetables was turned back yesterday because it was owned by a haulier who had transferred meat.

After the meeting at Gaerwen, all the farmers left for Holyhead, where police were expecting a total of 3,000 demonstrators before the first ferry arrived at 1.15am. In west Wales, police doubled their presence at Fishguard and Pembroke Dock.

Earlier, as Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, held talks in London with leaders of the Farmers' Union of Wales and the National Farmers' Union, more than 200 farmers blockaded Fishguard in an effort to stop Irish beef reaching the British market. At Holyhead, six vehicles carrying Irish meat were refused entry by a blockade of more than 500 farmers.

It is becoming clear that since the first protest on Sunday night, when 40 tonnes of Irish beefburgers were thrown into Holyhead harbour, farmers believe that conventional channels are failing to resolve problems claimed to threaten the whole fabric of rural Wales.

The Scots were following suit. Beef producers in Scotland last night staged a demonstration at Stranraer, an entry port for beef from Ireland.

George Lyon, vice-president of the the National Farmers' Union of Scotland, accompanied other officials and union members at the demonstration. He said: "Our hands are tied behind our backs and these cheap imports are underpinned by aid from the Irish government and the European Commission."

Elsewhere, farmers picketed supermarkets at Wrexham and Middlewich in Cheshire, while at Fishguard more than 200 farmers succeeded in turning back three refrigerated lorries which contained chicken and dairy products but not beef.

Many supermarket chains, including Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Waitrose, cleared bone-beef products from their shelves following yesterday's government announcement.