Farmers raise stakes in battle against cheap meat imports

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The Independent Online
Farmers in Wales yesterday claimed a further victory in their battle against `cheap' meat imports when a pounds 500,000 consignment destined for British shops was returned to Ireland. Tony Heath reports on an escalating crisis.

Six lorries laden with Irish meat returned to Rosslare yesterday after police at Fishguard told their drivers they could not guarantee their safe passage out of the West Wales port.

Five hundred farmers had gathered at Crymach, some 30 miles from Fishguard, and police were fearful of a repeat of Sunday night's scenes at Holyhead in which pounds 70,000 worth of beefburgers were dumped in the harbour. The Irish vehicles were corralled when they disembarked from Stena Line's Coningin Beatrix, and after a meeting with police the drivers decided to re-embark.

Keith Turner, assistant chief constable of the Dyfed-Powys force, issued a statement declaring that his officers were not going to take sides and become involved in a political dispute. "Our primary role is to preserve law and order and maintain public safety," he said.

The "victory" at Fishguard has caused anger in the Irish Republic. However, it was enthusiastically hailed yesterday by crowds at Builth Wells where the National Farmers' Union launched a petition addressed to the Agriculture Secretary, Jack Cunningham, and the Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, urging all possible measures "to stabilise the rural economy".

Hugh Richards, NFU vice-president in Wales, said: "The green pound compensation package should be implemented swiftly and we call on the Government to set an example by buying British agricultural products."

To the applause of a large crowd attending the auction of prime Welsh cattle, a coffin draped with the Welsh flag and surmounted by a sirloin of beef was paraded round the show ring. Black-suited and bowler-hatted pall-bearers later listed their frustrations at falling livestock prices and the perceived lack of government action.

Mick Bates, a cattle and sheep farmer from Llanfair Caereinion in mid- Wales, claimed his income was plunging dangerously low. "We must make the people in power aware of our plight. If it takes demonstrations to do that- so be it."

Keith Morris, who farms at Painscastle, near Hay-on-Wye, said: "Sheep prices are 30 per cent less than a year ago and the money we get for cattle is on the way down."

Terry Court, vice-president of auctioneers Russell, Baldwin and Bright, added: "A year ago a prime beast would fetch pounds 900-pounds 1,000. Today that's down to pounds 600-pounds 650."

Much rests on a meeting in London this afternoon when leaders of the NFU in Wales and the Farmers' Union of Wales are scheduled to meet the Welsh Secretary. The outcome will undoubtedly influence a gathering of farmers planned for tonight at Gaerwen, Anglesey, 20 miles from Holyhead.