At this time of great change, we can look to the future of farming and our countryside with hope.
Advances in conservation land management practices, changes in consumer demands and the new agricultural policy offer challenges but also new opportunities for farm businesses, wildlife and for the future of our native breeds.
But this commercial and environmental promise will not be fulfilled without viable businesses – and that means having the right business infrastructure in place.
Abattoirs are a tangible and urgent example of why the commercial viability of sustainable local farming systems should be central to Government’s environmental vision.
Government is doing important work to develop better mechanisms for environmental support, but without investing in local infrastructure its vision can be little more than fantasy.
The decline of the local abattoir network must be addressed, fast.
Native breeds should have a starring role in Government’s plans for better conservation of the countryside.
Having evolved over centuries to live in sync with British landscapes and ecosystems, these breeds are the experts in conservation grazing to manage land in ways that encourage biodiversity and allow nature to flourish.
The survival of those breeds which have become all too rare is rightly recognised in the new Agriculture Bill as a national conservation objective.
Commercially, the direction of UK farming policy is set to make native breeds increasingly attractive to farm businesses, but the limitations of today’s abattoir network is a frustrating barrier.
Rare breeds typically need an abattoir which can work with small numbers and several different species, with ‘slow grown’ cattle over 30 months old and large pigs, with horned cattle returning hides and horns to the farmer, and which has organic certification.
Too often access to these services now requires the cost and welfare concerns of travelling long distances.
Reversing the decline of local abattoirs will not happen all by itself. We need realistic solutions to revive a network that serves the needs of the farming industry and of local meat supply chains now, and in which farmers with rare breeds can have confidence for the future.
A Government-subsidised abattoir network is not the answer. We need a collaborative approach. First of all farmers need to commit to using local facilities.
If small abattoirs are not being used regularly, the chances are they will not be providing farm businesses with a local option for much longer.
The role of Government is to provide one-off investment, as part of its general investment in production, to prepare the sector to thrive in a more market facing world.
This support needs to help abattoirs meet the changing demands of a changing industry – use of new technologies, ability to take small numbers of non-standard animals and returning the fifth quarter, and providing related services such as butchery, processing and packing.
Where there is no local abattoir in situ, Government can invest in the rollout of mobile and pop-up abattoirs.
Challenges such as access to water and disposal of by-products should not put us off. Other countries have overcome them and so should we.
The surest way to save a rare breed is ensuring farms can turn a profit from the purposes for which the animal was originally bred.
The market for rare breed products is growing year on year and commercial opportunities are set to be boosted by the opportunity for public payment for native breed conservation work under the new Agriculture Bill.
A sustainable local abattoir network is the crucial lynchpin, both for the survival of rare breeds and also for achieving the Government’s environmental land management vision.