Food Standards: Protesting beef farmers send cheap Irish imports packing to a watery grave

The French approach to agricultural disputes came to Holyhead yesterday. Farmers in North Wales, angry at cheap beef imports from Ireland and the hardships caused by the BSE ban on exports, stopped lorries arriving from the Republic and threw boxes of beefburgers into the harbour. Tony Heath witnessed the carnage.

Irish beefburgers worth pounds 70,000 swilling around in Holyhead harbour yesterdaywere testimony to the anger of Welsh farmers complaining that they were heading for the rocks because of poor livestock prices.

The protest coincided with the publication of Government figures which showed that British farmers' income this year is forecast to be 35 per cent lower than in 1996.

The 40-tonne cargo was stolen when around 600 protesters forced open the doors of one of several Irish lorries arriving in the North Wales port on board the Stenna Explorer. The route from the docks was blocked and the protesters had spiked barriers capable of shredding tyres in reserve.

The Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, and leaders of both the National Farmers' Union and the Farmers' Union of Wales, were swift to condemn the action. Mr Davies sympathised over the plight of beef farmers hit by the strong pound and the export ban resulting from the BSE crisis, but he condemned the Holyhead action. "Anyone who committed a criminal act should be prosecuted," he said.

Bob Parry, president of the FUW, who farms on Anglesey, was appalled. However, he warned: "The government will have to take notice. If they don't, God knows what will happen next time."

Sir David Naish, NFU president, described the events which lasted until daybreak yesterday, as counterproductive. "Threats will not solve the problem," he said.

The actions will not win support in Europe from the Council of Ministers, where talks to end the beef export ban are going on. The Secretary of State for Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, said: "There is no easy pot of gold in Brussels, waiting to be picked up on behalf of farmers. Violence and the destruction of legitimate products will not help to resolve the situation."

Around 20 police officers were at the scene but no arrests were made.The events followed a meeting in the nearby market town of Gaerwen.

When the ferry docked the protesters were ready. They refused to allow through meat lorries but let other freight pass. Lorry drivers approaching the port to embark for Ireland were held by police outside the town. Daniel Hodges, of the Road Haulage Association, said that blockade tactics witnessed in France seemed to be spreading. "The last thing our members need is similar action here," he said.

As if to underline farmers' concerns, Welshpool market - the largest in Wales - yesterday reported the lowest level of business for years with stock being returned to farms unsold. One farmer said: "A year ago I was getting pounds 380 to pounds 420 for an animal. Today I'd be lucky to get pounds 270 for a similar beast."

The protest carries echoes of 1974 when the port of Holyhead and the railway linking it to the national network were both blockaded by farmers protesting at the import of live cattle from the Republic.

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