British farmers are trying to set up red tape and border checks in France costing millions of pounds – and may even pay for it themselves.
Breeders in Britain are unable to export their pedigree cattle, sheep and pigs to the EU because no one has built any border control posts where vets can check the animals before they enter the single market.
No private company in France has been prepared so far to invest the millions of euros needed to build a facility, bringing British exports to the European mainland to a halt since Brexit.
Now the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is planning to ask farmers if they will help fund the facility themselves. Meanwhile, some breeders say they have only months left before shutting down their export operations, while others are relocating to the EU.
John Royle, chief livestock adviser to the NFU, has been trying to rescue British farmers who specialise in breeding prize-winning cattle, sheep and pigs that are then used to establish their own herds and flocks.
“These are high-value, highly sought-after, high-health animals,” he said. “They travel in better conditions than you or I would do on a ferry or in the tunnel. When you consider what Brexit has cost countries on both sides of the border, with a modest investment we could restart trade to the benefit of both British and European livestock producers.”
The problems with being a third country have become clearer for travellers at Dover, with six-hour delays last month caused by checks on British passports and a lack of border posts. But ports in the UK and the EU have at least taken some steps to prepare for Brexit bureaucracy affecting tourists. Not so for livestock.
In 2019, Royle began writing to ports from the Hook of Holland and Zeebrugge to Calais and Dieppe, asking them to set up a facility, but none of them was interested. Eventually, he found a small French family firm called Qualivia that was prepared to apply to build a facility in Calais just outside the port.
Qualivia, which Royle described as “really good livestock people”, has received permission from the French authorities and is expecting to have approval from the European Commission soon.
But the firm has asked for assurances that it will recoup the cost of building a border control post, amid fears about the future of UK livestock exports.
“Effectively, what we’re doing now is helping Qualivia find the funds to build that infrastructure,” Royle said. “And that may need an investment from UK businesses. Which is a ridiculous thing, isn’t it? Because of Brexit we are having to fund our own facilities in France to get our animals to European customers.” He added that although officials from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had tried to be helpful, “there’s been no help from government. None at all.”
British breeders used to send about 500 consignments a year, ranging from a single Aberdeen Angus breeding bull or a pair of ewes to 30 breeding pigs.
Royle is helping a pig breeder who set up in England because of its high animal health standards: “This is a large pig-breeding business where they breed nucleus animals, at the top of the breeding pyramid, and they may need to relocate to Europe, effectively closing down their UK business, which is not what they want to do.”
Another victim of the absence of red tape is Geoff Roper, who imported Australian Lowline cattle to his Dorset farm, Wessex Lowlines, 12 years ago, seeing the potential of a breed that is smaller than other cattle and usually only needs to be fed on grass, rather than grain feed, which makes it more sustainable. “We’ve established several herds in Europe – in the Pyrenees, down in Bordeaux and in Belgium, and up in Switzerland and Germany,” Roper said. “And we’ve been doing that for several years – we are known as the centre of excellence for these products in Europe.”
He has five European customers who have paid deposits for Lowlines and some have been waiting for two years. Roper estimates he has lost £150,000 so far.
“It has just stopped our cash flow dead. I’ve got half a million pounds worth of stock, half of which should go to Europe – 50 of them are ready now – but we can’t move them. I’m planning to keep financing this business until May next year. If we don’t know by May, we’ve got some significant issues.” Roper’s farm manager, Sam Maughan, said: “This was totally unexpected – we trusted the powers that be that there would be a short-term stop and it would all be back up and running. There just seems to be a lot of passing the buck. Surely the UK government have a responsibility to the UK businesses who are providing for this country.”
The government has been asked to comment.