Alan Davies AM, Minister for Natural Resources and Food
Further to my written statement of 2 April, I have met with farmers and their representatives to discuss the serious effects that the recent adverse weather has had on certain parts of Wales. I have also visited a number of farms affected to gain a better understanding of the immediate difficulties being faced, where specifically they apply, and what collectively we can do to address them.
I have also attended all of our recent CAP consultation events across Wales and have very much welcomed the opportunity of meeting with farmers face-to-face, to listen to their concerns and discuss suggestions of how the Government can provide further practical support at this time, as well as considering challenges and opportunities for the longer term.
I pay tribute to all those who have worked day and night to save animals in those areas worst affected, and also to open up rural communities that had been inaccessible because of the snow. I have heard a number of individual stories of the difficulties faced, and both of the efforts made and solidarity shown by families, farming neighbours, and local communities in helping overcome them.
From my discussions over the last fortnight, and from wider contacts with the industry, three sets of issues have emerged. The first relates to practical issues on the ground to enable farm businesses to operate in the areas affected; the second concerns how we – Government, other public and voluntary sector partners, and the industry – can support those worst affected through this period; and the third relates to the future - the longer-term impact of the weather, and how we can strengthen the resilience of the farm sector, and upland livestock producers in particular, to help meet future contingencies.
In relation to practical issues, following advice from my veterinary advisers and having forward weather reports from the Met Office, it is clear that the current derogation for on-farm burial is still necessary for the time being, although its geographical coverage must remain closely targeted on the areas worst affected. I have therefore extended the derogation until midnight on 16 April 2013, covering the same geographic area plus specific parts of north Ceredigion.
I understand from Local Authorities, within the areas identified, that the problem is not uniform in any one area, and I have therefore asked my officials to work closely with Local Authorities to fine tune the application of the severe weather derogation process to ensure the worst affected parishes are identified. Work to provide this additional focus will be progressed over the next week and will ensure any further application of the derogation remains proportionate and directly relevant. In the meantime I would encourage any affected farmers to contact their local authority to discuss the use of the derogation on a case-specific basis.
Those wishing to access the latest Welsh Government guidance and details of the derogation should go to the website. This guidance will continue to be updated as required, and we are liaising closely with other key partners, including local authorities, Natural Resources Wales and fallen stock collectors, regarding the information and support that they are providing.
My officials are continuously gathering evidence from the ground, and I am reviewing the situation on a daily basis. It is important that we understand the specific locational impacts of the snow, so that we can respond as necessary with focussed practical support for those farm holdings in most need. We are ready to work with the farming unions on welcome initiatives such as fodder banks and fodder distribution networks. I am monitoring the position on lorry drivers’ hours, and will seek further derogations if these are needed to keep supplies of feed and other farm inputs moving. I am not aware of any areas within Wales that remain wholly cut off by the snow, but my officials are in touch with colleagues in the Armed Forces should we find that heavy logistical support is needed in particular places.
In terms of direct support, I have asked Farming Connect to prioritise applications from producers in the affected areas for one-to-one support via the Whole Farm Plan. I encourage those farmers interested in the service to contact the Farming Connect service centre directly. Further information and guidance for farmers can be found on both the Welsh Government and Farming Connect websites. There is also the Farming Connect Service Centre, (Contact 08456 000 813) and I urge farmers to take advantage of this to ensure they are receiving the best advice possible in these difficult circumstances.
I am also acutely conscious of the human element in these difficult on-farm circumstances. The confidential help and advice offered by the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI), Farm Community Network (FCN) and the Addington Trust are very important and welcome services in this context. I am currently reviewing how Welsh Government could further support their work during this period where their resources are under significant pressure. I will also be meeting with colleagues from local government in the areas affected, and working with wider representatives of the voluntary sector to see what other reasonable offers of help may be needed in the near term.
With regard to the future, we will need to assess the longer-term consequences of the recent weather for the Welsh livestock sector and particularly for the lamb market. Together with the industry we will also need to monitor the wider situation on availability of feed across Wales, given that opportunities for grazing have already been significantly delayed this year. But, as a number of stakeholders have said to me in the last fortnight, we also need to review the farming sector’s ability to withstand weather events of this sort, and other emergencies that from time to time arise. This in turn plays into the long-term financial viability and wider sustainability of the sector, particularly in our uplands.
Agriculture will always be reliant on the climate, and concerns raised with me about the cumulative impacts of this latest episode of severe weather suggest there may be an inherent underlying weakness in farm businesses’ resilience (individually and collectively) to cope when difficult circumstances arise. The lamb sector, for example, has experienced a relatively steady period of stable or increasing prices and growing incomes in recent years. It is a matter of great concern if a single year of reduced prices, together with the difficult weather, causes such apparent economic disruption to the sector. These problems cannot simply be remedied by providing further public subsidy, as some have suggested, although how we shape future CAP support is clearly an important part of the picture. It is crucial that we develop effective and resilient farm businesses for the future.
I am therefore establishing an independent review to assess and advise me on these issues, how the sector works with itself and others to meet contingencies, and what might be done to strengthen resilience at business, sector and cross-Wales level. The review will also consider some of the business models that presently apply in the industry, particularly among the livestock sectors, and whether they are actually viable in the longer term. This will be an important piece of work both for Government and for the industry. It will help inform our work in developing CAP arrangements in Wales for the next seven years, and how we shape the next Rural Development Plan. It will also feed into our work on responsibility and cost-sharing, and on taking forward our Working Smarter agenda.
I have asked Kevin Roberts, former Director General of the NFU in England and Wales, and former Chief Executive of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, who has both a financial and commercial background, to lead this review. I look forward to working with Kevin and with the industry to help strengthen the farming sector in Wales for the future.
I will continue to monitor the situation for those areas still affected by the adverse weather, and I remain fully committed to working with the agricultural sector in Wales through this difficult time. I will make a further statement on the weather situation next week, and will also set out further details regarding Kevin Roberts’ review.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns I would be happy to do so.