Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Is it back to the future for the beef industry?

Cattle being driven down the North Circular Road from the Dublin Livestock Market
Cattle being driven down the North Circular Road from the Dublin Livestock Market

Is it a case of 'back to the future' for the Irish beef industry in the wake of the Brexit vote?

That is the question that many in the Irish agri-sector are asking themselves following the UK's seismic referendum result.

While Britain's future trading arrangements with the EU are a matter of guesswork and conjecture, most will hope that the price volatility and uncertainty that characterised the cattle trade in the 1950s and early 1960s will not be repeated.

British buyers dominated the Irish cattle and beef trade in the post-war era. Over 90pc of live cattle exports went to Britain; and while Ireland had a lucrative contract supplying meat to the US forces based in Europe, the UK was also a major customer for processed beef.

The cattle industry was a vital source of export earnings for the country. Official figures for 1960 to 1964 show that live cattle exports averaged 663,000 head a year, while around 60,000 tonnes of beef were shipped annually.

However, returns to farmers reflected the vagaries of the world market, with the threat of increased supplies into Europe from South America and Australia being enough to undermine prices in Irish fairs and markets.

Newspaper reports from the Dublin Cattle Market in the late 1950s and early 1960s tell of the market being down on the back of increased imports.

Rumours of massive Argentine beef imports into Britain were also a standard ploy used by dealers to pull prices at fairs.

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Former ICOS executive Maurice Colbert recalls meeting dealers on the way into the fair in Dungarvan, Co Waterford with his father.

They were attempting to buy the cattle on the cheap before they even reached the fair by claiming that prices had collapsed because of a large shipment of Argentine beef into Britain.

'Men of straw'

However, the dealers got nothing soft from the Colberts. Maurice remembers his father waving his ash plant at them and shouting: "Get out of my way… men of straw."

But talk of substantially higher beef imports from South America were not always fabricated. The Irish embassy in Rome, for example, reported in 1963 that Argentine beef exports were set to increase by 10pc to 428,000 tonnes. Of this total, 203,000 tonnes were earmarked for the British market.

Ireland gained more secure access to the British market following the signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries in 1965.

In fact, the deal stipulated that Ireland was to supply Britain with 638,000 store cattle annually - a target that was never realised.

Will greater competition from South American beef be a feature of the post-Brexit era?

Only time will tell.

Declan O'Brien is currently studying for a PhD in modern history at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick

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