Boris Johnson has been urged to “stop playing Russian roulette” with the sheep and lamb industry by threatening a no-deal Brexit ahead of a visit to Wales, where he will promise farming has a bright future.
The new prime minister said he would “always back Britain’s great farmers” and promised to “make sure that Brexit works for them”.
“That means scrapping the common agricultural policy and signing new trade deals – our amazing food and farming sector will be ready and waiting to continue selling ever more not just here but around the world,” he said. “Once we leave the EU on 31 October, we will have a historic opportunity to introduce new schemes to support farming – and we will make sure that farmers get a better deal.”
Johnson is expected to visit a farm, meet Mark Drakeford, the Labour first minister of Wales, and possibly go to Brecon and Radnorshire, where the Conservatives are expected to lose a seat to the Lib Dems on Thursday in a byelection.
But ahead of his trip, he was warned that 40% tariffs on meat exported to the EU could lead to the mass slaughter of sheep.
Helen Roberts from the National Sheep Association in Wales said it would be “absolutely catastrophic” to leave with no deal and could lead to civil unrest among sheep farmers.
“I’d want him to stop playing Russian roulette with the industry,” she said.
Roberts said she did not want to see a mass slaughter for welfare reasons so the government needed to get cold storage in place and talk about public procurement of lamb meat.
Asked about civil unrest among farmers such as tractors being used to block roads, she said: “I think they will. It is time to stand up for ourselves … I suspect there will be protests.”
Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers Union, said there would be no market for 40% of the UK’s lamb meat in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“You would be in oversupply because you wouldn’t be able to get over the barrier of a tariff to Europe,” she said.
She said a mass slaughter was the last thing the union wanted but to avoid that the government would need to look at forcing hospitals, schools and other public bodies to buy lamb meat.
Alun Cairns, the Welsh secretary, agreed that farming was a winner from having access to EU markets but said there was potential for exports to new markets.
Asked for his response to threats of civil unrest, he claimed UK farmers could export their meat to Japan rather than Europe.
“I would say we are working to get a deal and the European market is important to us but there are markets around the world,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He added that it was not clear how civil unrest would take place. “The context is that Wales has voted to leave the EU … we have an obligation to leave and of course we would much prefer to leave with a deal.”
Last week research commissioned by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and Quality Meat Scotland found that combined beef and sheep meat exports to the EU could decline by 92.5%, with the lamb export trade “almost completely wiped out”.
In a no-deal scenario, the 37,000 carcasses a week that are usually sent to Europe would be stopped overnight under strict EU import rules that require de facto licensing for all farm exports.
This has led to suggestions of a mass cull of animals as well as the need for state aid to support farmers, some of whom earn as little as £13,000 a year.
The head of Meat Promotion Wales, Kevin Roberts, told the Royal Welsh Show “the impact would no longer be seismic – it would be off the Richter scale and produce a fault-line fissure right through Welsh farming’s immediate future”.