Are sheep really that big a risk?

By Peter Morris NSA chief executive

Managing risk is a fact of life – we all do it all the time – and in the vast majority of instances the risk attached to an individual action is extremely small and so the measures we take accordingly are proportionate to the size of the risk.

Even where the risk is greater the measures adopted should always be in proportion – that is what sensible and pragmatic risk management is all about.

So why is it that this basic principle of life seems to be too difficult for many people involved in drawing up rules and regulations to understand?

Our sheep industry is beset by many examples where the regulatory measures deemed necessary to counter a particular risk are totally disproportionate to the risk involved.

At best these disproportionate measures cost us all millions of pounds and at their worst they are capable of more or less wiping out the entire industry.

The ban on burying livestock is a classic example. It is in force as a result of an EU directive passed many years ago but only recently enforced within the UK.

Why is this practice banned? What is the risk involved? The justifications seem rather weak to say the least. We are told sheep by-products cannot be buried as the TSE regulations maintain they present a risk to human health; but sheep have never been known to contract BSE in natural circumstances so does this theoretical risk really justify a ban?

We are also told that sheep carcases present pollution risks if they enter watercourses. I am sure they do, so why not authorise a burial site on farm where watercourses are not threatened rather than ban the practice?

“Why are we being told that in the future we will have to record the individual identity of every single sheep each time they move?

Peter Morris

The measures currently in place to deal with the risk presented by the theoretical possibility that BSE is found in the UK sheep flock take risk management into a different stratosphere.

Despite everything that has been done through the National Scrapie Plan it remains the case that measures are in place to counter a risk (BSE in sheep) that has never been found to exist outside of the laboratory – despite the best efforts of many who seem hell bent on finding it.

Then there are the proposed rules on identification and recording. ‘Double tagging’ and recording individual numbers – if it becomes compulsory - will drive many sheep keepers out of the industry as they decide it is just not worth trying to cope.

Why are we being told that in the future we will have to record the individual identity of every single sheep each time they move? If this is all about the risk of disease spread then the key fact to remember is that sheep move in batches and would always be dealt with as a batch if there was a problem. To record each one individually is a measure that is disproportionate to the risk that is being countered.

These examples clearly show that the ‘nanny state’ principle is as applicable to the sheep industry as it is in any other part of daily life. Of course we all accept that government is justified in bringing in rules in order to protect human health, the environment, animal health and welfare and to prevent disease spread but regulating in a proportionate manner with measures that are workable and do not threaten the viability of the industry must be the way forward.

We all hear lots of talk about the desire of the Government for regulation to be outcome driven and to be proportionate, well the time for talk has passed and the time for the sheep industry to see some clear examples is now.

There are long running battle zones between the sheep sector and the regulator but it should not be that way – if proportionate regulation was in place we could all move forward and not only achieve government’s desires but help our sheep industry survive in this risky world in which we all live.

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