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Controlling livestock movements

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ANYONE who finds the rules governing the movement of livestock in Great Britain hard to understand can rest assured: the rules really are complicated — and that's official. The current movement control regime dates back partly to the late 1990s, when measures were put in place for cattle to help control bse, and partly to 2003, when new rules were applied to sheep and goats, to help control the kind of sheep movements that had contributed to the spread of foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) in 2001. Rules have applied to the pig industry for more than 30 years. The aim of the controls is quite straightforward: to reduce the risk of notifiable diseases being spread and to allow outbreaks to be controlled more quickly. However, their operation is less clear cut and, in February this year, the animal health minister, Mr Ben Bradshaw, commissioned a review to determine the extent to which the current rules in England and Wales ‘deliver a significantly reduced risk of disease, taking account of the need to support the sustainability of the livestock industry’. The review, undertaken by Mr Bill Madders, a dairy farmer in Somerset, focused primarily on cattle and sheep movements. His report has just been published*, and serves to emphasise just how complex the arrangements are.

Moving animals around is an integral part of the uk livestock industry. At the same time, any movement risks spreading disease, and the aim of the control arrangements is to minimise that risk without bringing the industry to a halt. Under the current regime in England and Wales, any movement of cattle or sheep on to a holding triggers a six-day standstill period, during which no cattle or sheep can be moved off the holding, except in specific circumstances defined by exemptions to this basic rule. The length of the standstill period was outside the scope of Mr Madders' review, having been the subject of detailed cost-benefit analysis at the time of its introduction in 2003. The 20-day standstill applied to pigs was also outside his remit, having been long established and widely applied by the pig industry.

Mr Madders' report makes clear that, while the principle behind the rules may be fairly straightforward, their application is anything but. Part of the problem stems from attempts to adapt the basic rule to fit the needs of the industry, and the numerous exemptions that result. These allow businesses to operate, but add a whole layer of complexity to the rules. However, numerous other factors contribute, including confusion about what is meant by ‘premises’ and ‘holdings’, different requirements for cattle and sheep, changes that have been made to sheep identification rules and differences in the way movements have to be reported. The difficulties are compounded on mixed cattle and sheep holdings, in cases where holdings are linked or where animals under different ownership share common ground. Meanwhile, different rules apply in Scotland, where the standstill period for cattle and sheep is 13 days. The sheer complexity of the rules can lead to misunderstandings, the rules being circumvented and movements going unrecorded. This undermines the purpose of the controls and is dangerous in itself.

Evidence presented to the review pointed to a desire among most livestock farmers to comply with the rules, provided that they understood why the rules were in place and agreed that they were necessary; that the rules were seen to impose minimum constraints on businesses in achieving their objective; and that they were consistent between species and consistently enforced. With this in mind, and noting that changes are necessary, Mr Madders makes a number of recommendations aimed at simplifying the rules to enable livestock keepers to understand them and the responsibilities they impose. Other recommendations are intended to make the rules more workable, while others outline steps that could be taken by defra and its agencies to identify the places between which animals are moved more accurately, improve traceability and increase the chances that livestock keepers will understand and comply with their reporting obligations.

Mr Madders considered it outside his terms of reference to recommend that the livestock industry should restructure itself and its activities to minimise the risk of disease. As a result, his recommendations are primarily designed ‘to enable the industry in its present form to comply better with simpler movement rules’. He notes, however, that there is pressure from food retailers and others to reduce the number of livestock movements and to shorten the red meat production chain, and that in some other countries it is more common for livestock to be finished on the farm of birth and go direct to slaughter. He also notes that, while experience of electronic auctions and internet trading of livestock in the uk has been mixed, other countries successfully use these methods.

Ministers intend to respond to the report after the summer. In assessing the proposals, they will clearly have much to consider. Despite the practical difficulties, movement controls are necessary and, as recognised at the time of the fmd inquiries, need to be linked to improvements in farm biosecurity. The system needs to be simplified but thought should also be given as to how veterinary farm health planning can contribute to a more integrated approach. This could bring benefits in terms of controlling not just notifiable diseases, but also some of the endemic diseases that have a significant effect on farm profitability.

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