Chris Rundle: Tesco and the lie of the lamb, Dairy Show and fallen badgers
There are three words which are enough to send the blood pressure of any British sheep farmer off the scale. They are: New Zealand lamb.
A commodity which has done more than anything else to take the profitability out of sheep farming in this country, and whose producers have benefited from a far higher degree of promotion and advertising than British farmers have ever seen.
Try a word association test. Try throwing in the word lamb. Nine times out of ten you'll get "New Zealand" as your response.
It wasn't so bad when the market was ruled by a gentlemen's agreement, when the Kiwis would only send us their lamb in the months when the British product was short.
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But that went out of the window long ago thanks in part to the New Zealand government ditching subsidies and leaving its farmers to fight tooth and nail for every last cent, partly to the ruthless antics of British supermarkets who have been happy to shaft British farmers by importing every last kilo of NZ product they can lay their hands on.
You might care to ask how come New Zealand lamb can be shipped half way round the world and still be cheap. Farmers who have been there say it's all down to a rather more robust attitude to animal welfare than exists here: the preference for a bullet rather than a vet's bill, and worse. All strenuously denied by the European representatives of the New Zealand meat sector. As you might expect, of course.
Farmers here accept as inevitable that supermarkets will undercut them with the use of cheap imports: it's just one of several activities which falls into the general category of "supporting British farmers" which is what supermarkets tell their gullible customers they do.
But they would be justified in becoming a little concerned over the revelation that Tesco has actually been economical with the truth in order to pushing more NZ product with its larger profit margins.
Linda Allan, a member of the North of England Mule Sheep Association, contacted Tesco to enquire why New Zealand lamb was available as well as British lamb at this point in the year, when sales of British lamb are traditionally strong, mainly, as connoisseurs will tell you, because autumn lamb actually has a lot more flavour than the spring lamb about which people get so excited.
However, the replying email from Tesco's customer service team told her: "As lamb is not in season at the moment in the UK, we have to source our supply from elsewhere. We do this to avoid disappointment to our customers, as the demand is so great."
That's really a bit rich coming from a supermarket which has done its best to eradicate any notion of seasonality (tasteless strawberries and jet-lagged South American asparagus at Christmas; Easter Eggs on sale by New Year's Day, etc.) from its food displays.
Tesco has (naturally) apologised since the email was made public and says British lamb is and will continue to be available in its stores. But how many other mistakes are being trotted out daily by the know-nothings who staff its customer service team?
And that still does not answer the question of why a company which in this part of the world accounts for 80 per cent of all slaughtered meat is still importing cheap and inferior NZ lamb when it should know that British producers are struggling to manage on the prices they are getting.
But there, of course, lies the answer. The longer the imports roll in, the longer the market is well-supplied, the longer prices will remain depressed and the greater profit Tesco can pocket. That is, after all, how it works when you can exert such a vice-like grip on the trade.
Ten things I learned as a result of attending the Dairy Show at Shepton Mallet last week:
1 – NFU dairy board chairman Mansel Raymond can espy a jam mountain just over the horizon, represented by a huge increase in global milk demand. Farmers therefore should be racking up output in order to take advantage of it. Prices are easing up, all looking rosy, etc.
2 – Farmers For Action chairman David Handley says prices haven't gone up enough and need to rise by more than the odd penny here or there before farmers will feel confident about the future.
3 – Milk quota broker Ian Potter says that's all very well but we shouldn't imagine that the current upward trend in prices will last. Other countries are also upping output so if the global market lurches into oversupply next year prices will be back down with a bump.
4 – Mansel Raymond says it's a positive sign that processors have been investing millions in new plant and equipment.
5 – David Handley says that investment has been funded from money that should have gone to farmers.
6 – Mansel Raymond says farmers should take the lead from the market signs and invest to expand and modernise. They should also form stronger ties with the processors to form a united front to put pressure on supermarkets to raise prices.
7 – David Handley says farmers haven't got the money to invest – proved by a show of hands as he speaks – because they aren't being paid enough (see above) and will need at least a year of sustained high prices in order to be persuaded or able to do so – and at the moment there is no sign of that happening. Anyway, why should farmers support people who draw six-figure salaries and drive around in £80,000 company cars all funded on the back of dairy farmers' hard work?
8 – Mansel Raymond says he is pleased with the way negotiations have gone with the processors.
9 – David Handley says if they had gone that well then farmers wouldn't need to be standing around at the Dairy Show debating the milk price.
10 – And by the way, he says, the deal with the NFU is dead and buried. The dairy coalition is no longer working. And guess whose fault that is.
With the local badger cull now wound down, one wonders what further displays of mawkish, mindless sentimentality will be staged to mark its end.
Perhaps a service of remembrance for the fallen badgers? A service of thanksgiving for the ones who have escaped the marksmen's bullets and have lived to infect more cattle with TB?
Or an award ceremony to honour the selfless devotion to nightly duty by the dedicated members of the "wounded badger patrols" who, by all accounts, have repeatedly had to steel themselves against the screams of bullet-ridden and dying animals?
I wonder what rewards lie in store for the occupants of one car which was stopped by a local farmer (whose land was being cleared by marksmen) as it was being driven at lunatic speed along the lane past his home. It was dark. And the vehicle had previously driven up and down at least twice, once with a police car in pursuit.
Finding the farmer blocking his way, the driver advised him in the most robust terms imaginable to step aside or suffer a beating. When questioned as to how his lunatic driving was going to help save the badgers his response was in the nature of: "---- the badgers. We're just winding up the police."
Meanwhile, I have taken issue with the editor of my local weekly paper, a publication which runs a spot-the-badger competition in order to ensure the assiduous perusal of its advertising columns by readers. An image of a badger is tucked away somewhere in the classified section and the first reader to correctly identify the location wins a tenner (I know, I know. But times are hard).
I have made it my duty to acquaint the editor with my belief that in the current climate this is exploitation of the badger species of the most distasteful type and one which is likely to have the rent-a-yob crowd stoning his windows.
On the other hand, given the topicality of badgers perhaps the competition's scope should be extended, the weekly prize money increased, and readers challenged to spot images of a wounded badger, a dead badger or a TB-infected badger as well.
If, however, he deems that appeasement is the better course I have suggested the badger be replaced by another species, such as a stoat or a wildebeest. I accept entirely that the latter is not indigenous to Exmoor but its use would be no more illogical or perverse than organising an operation to halt the eradication of a disease now causing our worst animal health epidemic in decades.
To his credit, he has now published the letter so I am sitting back and awaiting the usual response that results from speaking out against the Friends of Brock. As my staunchly pro-cull MP Ian Liddell-Grainger has discovered, this consists of having a dead badger dumped on one's doorstep.
My house, however, lies some 50 yards from the road and is accessed via an unmade-up lane which can be tricky to negotiate at night – many an ankle has been turned thereon. Moreover the property, when one reaches it, is fitted with security lights which snap on automatically with an intensity that can be momentarily blinding – this to allow the resident, sabre-toothed canine guardian to get well within trouser-ripping range without being sussed.
And I can tell you he doesn't take kindly to having his slumbers interrupted. Particularly by bleeding-heart badgerites. Particularly when there's actually a sniff of badger around, which he takes as a signal to turn on the afterburner, flick on the autopilot and lock the laser guidance system onto its target until destruction has been achieved.
I wouldn't wish that on anyone, even the pitiful, simple-minded, hand-wringing bunch who still stand up for a species which is costing this country hundreds of millions a year. So I have left a box with my name on it by the kerb: dead badgers can be safely deposited therein.