Ministers authorise new slaughter of 1.3 million lambs

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The Government yesterday authorised the slaughter of up to 1.3 million lambs which cannot be sold for export or moved because of foot-and-mouth restrictions but would starve if they remained on farms this winter.

Lord Whitty, the agriculture minister, said "light lambs", which are bred for export to France, Italy and Spain where they are prized for their sweeter meat, could be slaughtered at a cost of up to £30m. Supermarket chains announced plans to sell the extra lamb from next month but said they could not absorb the whole surplus.

Farmers are likely to be offered £10 a head for the lambs which would face a winter of suffering if left on summer pastures. Lord Whitty said: "They would have been perfectly healthy and would normally go for export but they will become a welfare problem very early in the autumn" He said there would be concern about hundreds of lambs dying in the hills.

The Meat and Livestock Commission has applied to the Government for £2.7mto help fund a £6m advertising campaign to be launched next month. It features the comedian Harry Enfield.

A spokesman for the department said: "We are not going to see huge increases in the amount of lamb people eat and we are still looking at a very substantial number."

British lambs are generally a year old at slaughter and weigh 22kg. Light lambs are sold at between four and eight months, weighing just 15 kg. All the major supermarket chains said they would start selling the meat in packs later this month. But a spokesman for Safeway warned that lamb sales had been falling for several years. "It will be priced competitively, but we will have to be careful not to undercut the market for ordinary lamb."

Lord Whitty, speaking at a conference on the future of the sheep industry organised by the National Farmers' Union, said farmers might have to return to less intensive agriculture or consider organic practices.

Youth hostels across England and Wales may be forced to close as a result of a fall in visits due to the crisis. Roger Clarke, chief executive of the Youth Hostels Association, said it might have to sell "significant" numbers of properties.

Tim Yeo, the Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "With Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett abroad there is clearly no-one in charge."