DEFRA has done an abrupt u-turn on its promised changes to the sheep carcass splitting rules, citing fears that the move – announced last November – could stop the UK getting the 'third country' listing for sheepmeat exports that it will need in the event of a no-deal or a delay to the Brexit negotiations.

The UK sheep industry has been campaigning for years to have Defra change how it determines the age of sheep at point of slaughter, and therefore whether or not their carcases must be split to remove 'specified risk materials' under the TSE regulations. As such, there had been a warm welcome for the news that the existing method of checking for tooth eruption was to be scrapped in favour of an agreed calendar date of June 30, before which no lambs would need to be checked or spilt, and after which all old season lambs would need to be split for SRM removal.

But at a meeting for industry bodies hosted by Defra at the start of this week, it was revealed that Defra does not want to introduce this change during the troubled Brexit negotiations.

The National Sheep Association immediately expressed frustration that Brexit's promise of agriculture's liberation from EU rules had actually achieved the opposite. NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “This U-turn this has raised the question of trust in Ministers, especially as it comes just days after Mr Eustice’s resignation from the Cabinet. He wrote to me shortly after the referendum boldly saying that if the EU won’t allow us to change our method of ageing then this will be one of the first things we will change when we are no longer a member state. We are now told that if we are no longer members of the EU, we don’t have the ability or latitude to make that change.

“Anyone still thinking that departure from the EU will result in freeing agriculture from nonsensical rules and regulations should think again," added Mr Stocker.

“I am aware people will have made business decisions this spring based on the expectations of these rules changing and, on behalf of NSA, I’d like to apologise if we have become tangled up with giving what have become incorrect messages to industry. All I can say is that we were acting in good faith and working to keep industry informed using written statements and agreements from Defra and our Farming Minister.”

NFU Scotland livestock committee chairman Jimmy Ireland said: “This sudden change of tack from the UK Government is more than disappointing, it’s baffling!

“The UK Government had made a commitment last year to the sheep sector that it would move to a new system of sheep ageing, replacing years of arbitrary regulation with a sensible method for ageing sheep which would have delivered certainty to farmers and crofters over their possible market returns.

“Now, the UK Government is saying that implementing this change during Brexit could have implications for our future relationship with the EU. We’ve known that the UK was due to leave the EU this March for more than two years now, yet Defra hadn’t told us that this would be a problem.

“We are facing the bizarre situation where we could bring in sensible rules on this if we were remaining in the EU, but because we are due to leave in a matter of weeks, we are stuck with an outdated and costly system," said Mr Ireland. "The UK Government has led us down the garden path on this."

The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers commented: “We wholeheartedly agree that this last-minute U-turn by Defra is deeply frustrating for everyone involved in the sheep industry, including SAMW member businesses who are stuck with an inadequate system which the Government previously agreed was inadequate.

“It hardly gives us confidence as heavily invested businesses working to extremely tight margins that Defra is going to get it right going forward. If they can’t sort this issue then what chance US hormone beef imports?”