For many UK livestock hauliers the lifting of the beef
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export ban may have come too late. Murdo Morrison asks if the sector can ever fully recover...
The beef export ban was introduced on 20 March 1996 along with a raft of restrictions on homegrown beef old in the UK. It hurt cattle farmers badly, but at least they were compensated for their
slaughtered cows—hauliers who depended on beef exports for their livelihoods received nothing.
Now the ban is being lifted and the UK's beef exporters are determined to rebuild overseas sales by persuading sceptical European consumers to buy British again. But for many transport firms any recovery in the industry's fortunes will have come too late.
In the year before the ban Britain exported £650m worth of beef, mainly to EU countries such as France and Germany. That does not take into account shipments of cattle for breeding. Exports had actually been rising since 1990, despite the negative publicity following the discovery of BSE in the British herd in 1986. But the export ban sent dozens of livestock hauliers to the wall.
As most of Britain's exported beef comprises carcasses, refrigerated transport firms—including meat processors running their own fleets—have been most directly affected by the ban.
Casualties have included Galloway Transport of Castle Douglas in Dumfries & Galloway, which had just invested in new equipment, Others, such as Moody International in Grimsby, have been luckier. The company rum 10 reefers carrying meat to western Europe, and managing director Mick Moody says he lost 30% of his business when the ban was introduced. It was able to move successfully into lamb exports, but Moody points out that a side-effect of the ban was to force down rates as more hauliers chased less work. "We've actually grown," he says, "but the market's been harder." And despite the lifting of the ban, he is downbeat about the sector's prospects.
The company specialises in transporting hanging carcasses, but beef on the bone will remain illegal. "It means we'd have to go palletised, and that means fighting it out with every Tom, Dick and Harry who jumps on the bandwa,g on," says Moody.
But while reefer operators may have been able to switch into other markets, livestock hauliers transporting breeding cattle abroad or moving cattle to UK abattoirs have had less room for manoeuvre. The effect on a sector already reeling from a strong pound; a general slump in farming, tighter welfare laws and constant threats from animal rights extremists has been catastrophic.
The Road Haulage Association says that at the height of the crisis losses to livestock hauliers were running at more than 1:350,000 a week, with total losses to the industry reaching .03rn.
Eddie Harper, chairman of the RHA:s livestock transport group, reckons that around 10% of the section's 250 mem
bers have quit as a result of the ban. Others, he says, have been forced into other areas of livestock or even general haulage. Among those worst hit have been hauliers on both sides of the Scottish border and in rural areas where other work is in short supply.
Firms specialising in transporting breeding heifers to countries such as Spain and Portugal also lost that lucrative business at a stroke.
Livestock haulier W Armstrong, based it Longtown, near Carlisle. is one firm that has ridden out the crisis by diversifying. Until the ban it was taking an average of a truck a week from Scotland to Germany with Galloway or Highland cattle for breeding. Since the ban it has managed to move into exporting breeding pigs. Director Geoff Armstrong puts the loss of business and the cast of converting its trailers from two to three decks at .E1 m. That's for a firm which runs 55 wagons and turns over £7.51n. "We haven't stood still," says Armstrong, "but we haven't managed to balance the books yet."
claim a penny for their losses.
VidlITIS The industry's biggest complaint has been the lack of compensation for hauliers. The RI-IA says livestock hauliers have become the "forgotten victims" of the BSE crisis with ministers rejecting pleas for relief for the sector because it "could be seen as setting a precedent". Despite this, the previous Government did allow aid to the beef processing industry. This included £.80m to abattoirs to help them dispose of 32,000 tonnes of unsaleable stocks following the ban on sales of meat from cattle over 30 months old. A total of £118m was also paid to the rendering industry as markets for cattle by-products vanished overnight "We were the only ones in the industry that didn't get paid," says Harper.
The National Farmers Union estimates that following the end of the ban it will take months for measures to be put in place to allow exports to resume. These include legislation and checks by the European Commission to verify that agreed controls have been implemented.
It will take even longer for confidence to return to markets. "There may be a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's a bloody long tunnel," says Harper. "The hardest bit is going to be winning the markets back." And while he accepts that the crisis may have made the sector "leaner and fitter" by forcing hauliers to examine costs, "a lot of good firms have simply disappeared'.