Major in U-turn over cull of 100,000 cattle

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A selective cull of 100,000 cattle will be announced by the Government in a U-turn which could secure the partial lifting of the European ban on the export of British beef.

The announcement, which is expected to be made by the Prime Minister on Monday after the Dublin Summit, could also be an important factor in helping to prop up the Government until a general election in the spring.

The selective cull plan, forecast in The Independent, was agreed at a meeting of ministers before yesterday's Cabinet and is expected to be discussed by the Prime Minister with heads of government at today's Dublin Summit.

Northern Ireland farmers will be the first to benefit from the cull, which could secure the support of the Ulster Unionist MPs under David Trimble, whose vote will be crucial in avoiding the Government being forced to the country.

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, resisted plans for the partial lifting of the ban for Northern Ireland until a UK-wide scheme was in place to trace cattle.

The first step to lifting the ban was taken on Wednesday when the Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg - who will be in Brussels on Monday with fellow EU agriculture ministers - announ-ced proposals for a traceability scheme for mainland Britain which would enable cattle to be traced from birth to the slaughterhouse. It will cost the industry pounds 25m to implement and it will enable 12 million cattle to be entered on computers.

But the Northern Ireland farmers already have a sophisticated scheme in place to combat cross-Border smuggling with the Republic. Franz Fischler, the European Agriculture Commissioner, has told ministers that the lifting of the ban could be implemented swiftly for Northern Ireland.

It could take months for the rest of Britain, led by Scotland, to benefit and will depend on the British farmers agreeing to fund the traceability scheme. However, ministers believe the go-ahead for Northern Ireland will help to restore confidence in beef among consumers.

Ministers confirmed privately last night that an announcement was imminent. "John Major will be able to return from Dublin waving a piece of white paper," said one minister.

The Government agreed to a selective cull at an EU summit in the summer in Florence, but later rejected the plan on the grounds that it went beyond scientific evidence. It is understood the Treasury was reluctant to foot the bill for the compensation which will run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Later, Mr Major said:"I hope we will be in a position to make a statement about the way forward some time in the next few days."

Asked if a deal had been agreed, he said there were some exchanges of correspondence going on about the issue but added: "We still need to have some more discussions with Brussels on the question of the science and precisely how things proceed."

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