'It's an insult to see cattle given away'

Market day used to be the high point of the week for Tony Flintoft who farms 800 feet up on the North Yorkshire moors. He would take the beef cattle he had reared from birth down to Northallerton and stand in the auction ring as the product of a year or more's hard labour was judged by his fellow hill farmers and bid for by the meat traders. Then it was home with the cheque.

Last Tuesday, Mr Flintoft, took two beef bulls from his farm on Snilesworth moor to Northallerton, but did not wait to see them auctioned. "It's too disheartening to watch them given away. It's a bit of an insult really," he said.

On average, he is losing pounds 150 an animal - typical of the losses suffered by quality beef farmers across the country. Tom Haigh, a specialist finisher of beef bulls, sold 16 animals at Northallerton and left with a cheque for pounds 6,952.

"A year ago this would have been pounds 10,000," said Mr Haigh, who farms at Stokesley and reckons he could lose pounds 180,000 this year. "Unless things improve I will have to put three men out of work and go into retirement."

The beef industry is complex, with several different systems of production. But no-one has escaped the consequences of the BSE crisis. A year ago, beef cattle were selling for 120 to 140 pence per kilo. Today, most go for 95p to 105p a kilo. A beef bull will weigh 500 to 600 kilos when it is sold and the farmer needs to make around 110 pence per kilo to break even. Farmers at Northallerton felt they had been let down by politicians. "Dorrell [Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health] should be hanged," said one.

There is also bitterness that dairy farmers are getting hefty compensation while the beef men, who have seen comparatively few cases of BSE, have been "left to swing in the wind".

Mr Flintoft has a suckler herd of 100 cows and fattens up their calves - around the same number - in sheds over the winter. He also has 700 ewes on the moor. But he fears for the future unless prices recover.

"Without the beef job there's nowt," he said. His holding of rough grassland can be used for little else but cattle and sheep. Though lamb prices have increased, a big change in the balance is impractical. "I'd need another 4,000 ewes. It would kill the moor."

Unlike Mr Flintoft, many hill farmers are unable to keep young cattle over the winter. Traditionally, calves born on hill farms are brought down in the autumn and sold at auction to lowland farmers who fatten or "finish" them. But the finishers are saying they will not buy calves unless prices are down by pounds 150 to pounds 200 a head.

Last week, Northumberland farmer Richard Thornton got pounds 370 a head for calves which would have fetched pounds 440 to pounds 480 last year. Proud of the quality beef produced on the uplands, he eschewed talk of impending disaster. "Sales are a worry," he said, "but people will try to ride out the storm."