Hogg ready for selective cull to ease beef ban

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The Independent Online
The Minister of Agriculture Douglas Hogg signalled for the first time last night that Britain might be prepared to accept a selective cattle cull as the price for a partial lifting of the European beef ban.

The Government last month ditched plans to proceed with the controversial additional slaughter of 140,000 high-risk animals following publication of research at Oxford suggesting that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) would die out of its own accord by 2000.

But Mr Hogg, who was in Luxembourg for European Union talks on the beef crisis, indicated that some additional culling might have to be considered to win approval for the resumption of exports of meat from certified BSE- free herds.

These herds are mainly in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Mr Hogg said: "It may be that the Europeans will seek a cull to support relaxation of the ban with regard to BSE-free herds. At that point one has to decide if it would be right to proceed with a cull."

The Government has refused to seek a "regional" solution to the beef exports dispute, despite mounting pressure from Scottish and Ulster farmers.

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, was in Luxembourg yesterday fuelling speculation about a shift in government tactics.

Both the European Commission and the Irish EU presidency have said that a regional slaughter could open the way to the first easing of the beef ban, as this would be in line with the Florence deal which committed the UK to a sweeping BSE eradication scheme.

Ship brokers are standing by to see if the doubling of the slaughter of cattle brings a revival of government interest in chartering refrigerated vessels.

Some 55,000 cattle over 30 months old are expected to be killed this week and most of the carcasses will go into cold storage. The doubling of the number of animals being killed under this scheme from 23,000 to the current 50,000 is likely to use up storage, forcing the government's Intervention Board to turn to refrigerated trailers and ships.

The latest estimate of the backlog by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is 393,000. More than 686,000 have been killed since the scheme was launched in April.

An announcement by Mr Hogg at the Tory conference of an extra pounds 16.6m to boost cold-storage capacity and speculation that the board might turn to ships and containers produced a spate of offers of cold storage.

Ship brokers who had been in discussion with the board found interest in refrigerated vessels put on hold. According to one, the board was looking for six-month charters. At the time, the rate was about $5,000 per day (pounds 3,200) for a vessel that would hold 5,000 tonnes of beef.

"It is a relatively expensive option," the broker said. Older vessels from the former Communist bloc or the eastern Mediterranean would probably be used; anchored or tied up in port, operating costs would be low.