By Chris Orr, commercial director at Lawrie and Symington, Lanark

It’s time for the breeding sales again, and here at Lanark we’re gearing up to host the annual Scottish Suffolk National show and sale on Thursday and Friday next week.

Normally, the two days are some of the most important in the calendar for the sheep sector: Farmers from all four corners of the UK converge in Scotland to show, discuss, buy and sell the cream of the crop. It’s been this way for generations and is integral to ensuring that the genetic diversity and strength of the flock continues.

Until now, that is. This year the breeding sales will likely be written off in export terms. Westminster’s political bungling of the post-Brexit movement of livestock between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland shows no sign of making any more sense.

In fact, a whole two months has passed since Neil Wilson, chief executive of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland (IAAS), last raised the issue in this very column, along with our head of sheep sales, Archie Hamilton, the Suffolk Sheep Society, a prominent sheep breeder in Northern Ireland, and an auctioneer at United Auctions, Stirling regarding movement of breeding bulls.

Time was of the essence, they said, to get things sorted before the summer breeding sales – and yet here we are with less than a week to go.

The confusion felt by farmers, auctioneers and breed societies about the now-required Export Health Certificates (EHC), is unbelievable. I’ve been in meetings with eight or so other people where every single one of us has a different interpretation of the rules.

I know of one farming customer, very experienced in exporting livestock, who took six months to jump through all the necessary hoops. Others have loaded up their animals, thinking they’ve done everything right, only to be turned back at the borders. And this is all happening within our own country, where there aren’t meant to be trading borders.

Then there’s the additional expense. Every animal must meet strict health criteria, which could cost up to £200 a sheep. That might come down if a farmer has several sheep to sell, but could involve two to three visits from a vet to sort all the paperwork out.

There’s also the issue that any stock sold in a non Assembly Centre sale at a mart must then go back on farm for 40 days before heading to Northern Ireland/EU. Semen can’t even be extracted and sent on because the rules also apply to products of animal origin.

And as if there wasn’t enough confusion already, Defra now plans to bring in new EHCs on August 21 – right in the middle of the breeding sales. Not only is there barely any information about these currently, but the department doesn’t plan to run information webinars for those affected until two weeks before the certificates go live.

None of this should be taken lightly, as the repercussions for the industry are serious.

Many buyers and sellers will be put off from moving stock across borders altogether, with consequences for the genetic strength of the flock in the long term. For some, including our most specialist breeders, this may have a significant impact on their businesses.

Some farmers may also choose to bypass live auctions and sell privately to avoid the need to return stock to their farms first. But this will make it harder to achieve fair, transparent and competitive prices – something live marts are designed to do.

Inevitably, some individuals may attempt unofficial cross-border routes to market, where the stock is not monitored to the same standards.

For auction marts, as the middle player between nervous buyers and sellers, who don’t quite know if their stock will cross the border or not, the risk is high. In this situation, buyers may be nervous to pay before receiving their stock, making for an anxious wait.

All in all, there’s a lot still to sort out and a lot at stake. So, once again, and a little more than tired and frustrated now, we appeal to Defra for support.