And in a separate development yesterday, the meat industry was dealt another blow when Germany revived calls for a total ban on British beef because of fears about BSE - "mad cow disease".
Richard Otley, managing director of SSE Ltd, one of the country's largest specialist meat exporters, said his firm could lose £750,000 a year if there was a complete ban on the trade. SSE is currently trying to ship animals from Brightlingsea, Essex, despite growing protests.
"Nationally, we are talking of hundreds of redundancies," he said. "This whole business is a farce. It should be no more difficult to trade with Belgium than with Nottingham."
Meat producers fear an end to live exports will have serious consequences for British agriculture. A Meat and Livestock Commission spokeswoman said that a wholesale ban could have catastrophic effects on the domestic beef market.
The young male dairy calves currently exported to the Continent for veal production would either face slaughter in the UK or, more likely, be raised for the beef market. There are about 2.5 million cattle slaughtered in Britain each year. If a further 500,000 were added - the annual number of calves exported - the market would be flooded and prices could collapse.
The impact on sheep farming may be less severe. Exports of sheep has been declining since 1993 due to falling production and changes to Common Agricultural Policy rules. If live exports were banned, the pressure of surplus supply on the domestic market, where demand is strong, would probably have a limited effect. A large proportion of the surplus could also be exported as carcass meat for the growing Continental market.
The National Farmers' Union is looking at ways in which the surplus of calves and sheep could be absorbed in the UK market and is relying on the Government's pledge to help boost domestic veal sales.
The upper house of the German parliament yesterday demanded a total ban on British beef, but this inspires less concern than ports refusing live exports. Last year, Britain persuaded the European Union that it was taking adequate steps to ensure no infected meat was being exported and the matter was dropped.
But a Meat and Livestock Commission spokeswoman said: "We would be very worried if the EU imposed a general ban on British beef." While trade with Germany has slumped, British farmers rely heavily on markets in other EU countries.
It is thought the Agriculture Minister, William Waldegrave, will raise the issue with German officials when EU farm ministers meet in Brussels on Monday.Reuse content