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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Angry farmers speak at Royal Show
By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

It's always known as the biggest show of its kind in Europe - and anyone who is anyone is at the Royal, as it's known, for at least part of the four days of the Warwickshire-based event.

Farmers always used to say that, in the dark days of foot and mouth, the saddest thing was the absence of animals at the show.

A calf being hosed down
Cattle at the show have been feeling the heat

But on the day I went, the activity on the cattle lines and in the equine ring was frenetic.

Huge prize bulls were brushed, dried and pampered as if they were supermodels, although Kate Moss is probably not hosed down with cold water on a photo-shoot to provide some respite on a searingly hot day.

The blacksmith was out at seven in the morning, the rhythmic beating of metal on metal ringing out across the ground as horses waited to be shod.

There have been few years in the past twenty when the threat or the aftermath of crisis has not hung over the show.

BSE, foot and mouth and the all-too-long recovery periods have all taken their toll.

This year, farmers are still having to contend with delays in European Union payments.

Lurid tales

The way farmers are paid their subsidy changed dramatically last year - they were no longer paid to produce food, but instead to look after the environment.

My members will be pleased to hear a politician supporting a competitive, profitable farming industry
Peter Kendall, President of the National Farmers Union

But the Rural Payments Agency, set up to manage this transition, was beset with computer system failures, delays and lurid tales of wild office parties.

"Most people have been paid - but some are still waiting for an awful lot of money. I have a member who's still owed more than 100,000," said Reg Haydon of the Tenant Farmers' Association.

"If the delays go on, it could tip some farmers out of business."

It was one thing that the new Environment Secretary, David Miliband, apologised for in his first major speech on farming since taking up his new job a few weeks ago.

He also set out his vision for a farming future - where the government would fight for British farming interest and a level playing field in Europe - but in return, farmers would have to take more responsibility for things like disease control.

Unique role

"Our goals for farming should be to build a profitable, innovative and competitive industry meeting the needs of consumers," said Mr Miliband, to fulfil its unique role in the countryside by making a net positive contribution to the environment; managing its risks, especially animal health risks, effectively; and to contribute to the long-term sustainability of rural communities."

David Miliband
The new Environment Secretary said he still had a lot to learn

He accepted he still had a lot to learn - but the speech was welcomed by many of the farmers who heard it.

"My members will be pleased to hear a politician supporting a competitive, profitable farming industry," said Peter Kendall, President of the National Farmers Union.

But he said there were still many unanswered questions, such as when the government was going to make a decision on bovine TB - which could include a badger cull, and when there might be a timetable for the further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

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