When nuclear rain swept the UK in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, farmers saw their livelihoods and even their families threatened. Some 9,700 farms and four million sheep were placed under restriction as radiocaesium- 137 seeped into the upland soils of England, Scotland and Wales.
Twenty-six years after the explosions at Reactor Four, restrictions remained on 334 farms in North Wales, and eight in Cumbria. But as of today, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) regulationsonthese farms were lifted, giving long-suffering livestock owners cause for celebration.
“We can now move our sheep freely, and we can sell our lambs at whatever time we want. Before, government officials would have to see the lambs and if they were over 1,000 Becquerel per kilo you wouldn’t be able to sell them. Now we can sell them at the best price,” said Mr Roberts, deputy president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales.
Before today, any livestock for breeding or sale had to be assessed with gamma monitors by officials from Defra or the Welsh government. Sheep found to exceed the legal radiation dose were moved to the lowlands before sale, and had the farmers wanted to move their flock, they had to seek permission.
One farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, explained the financial difficulty: “If you heard on a Monday that prices for lambs in the market on Tuesday were going to be sky high, you couldn’t go and sell them,” he said. “You always had to plan ahead, so we were losing money.”
Mr Roberts added: “It was an extra layer of bureaucracy on top of the bureaucratic industry conditions at the moment.”He welcomed the change as a“positive move in terms of consumer confidence in the Welsh lamb”.
The FSA said the restrictions had been lifted because “the current controls are no longer proportionate to the very low risk”. No sheep in Cumbria have failed the monitoring criteria for several years, and less than 0.5 per cent of the 75,000 sheep monitored annually in North Wales fail. Even the majority of sheep that do are unlikely to pose a threat to the consumer.
But there are dissenting voices. The anonymous farmer, who boasts a flock of 1,000 ewes, said: “The feeling I have is that it should still be in place. The food should be kept safe.”
The FSA’s report suggests farmers were concerned about the public’s perception of meat entering the food chain with high levels of radiation.
The farmers will lose the £1.30 they receive for each monitored animal, though their recompense has not changed in 26 years. Despite a likely cost of £325,000 to the farmers in losing this benefit, one claimed it was a “pittance” they could happily do without.
A National Farmers Union Cymru spokesman said: “Consumers of sheep meat can be confident that the removal of these remaining controls does not in any way compromise food safety.”