If the Government gets its way, from 2012 everyone in England who keeps a quantity of animals will be paying a new tax. For gamebirds,it will be 4p a bird, whether it’s a chick worth 40p that the hatchery owns for 24 hours or a laying bird kept all year round. Shoots will have to pay for each poult in a release pen. There will also be a compulsory insurance scheme costing perhaps a further 12p a bird. This is supposedly to meet the costs of dealing with notifiable diseases such as bird flu, but DEFRA’s recently proposed charges are buried deep within a document entitled Consultation on a new independent body for animal health. As stealth taxes go, it takes some beating.

A year or so ago, farmers were told that this scheme would be about “responsibility sharing”. They were assured that there needed to be a new body to deal with animal health issues, particularly notifiable diseases. It was to be independent of DEFRA and would answer to a board of livestock experts representing all farming sectors so that we could have confidence in future decision-making on these important matters.

Now we find that the new body will start with 240 staff, who will move directly across from DEFRA, and the board will be only eight or 10 strong, so, while it might include a poultry farmer, there is hardly likely to be a gamekeeper sitting on it. All livestock owners will be expected, through the sector-specific per-animal levies, to contribute 50 per cent of the new body’s costs, estimated at £44million a year. The additional insurance is to cover the Government’s bills for any future notifiable disease outbreaks.

The first question is why any of this is necessary. DEFRA says that it will improve decision-making and prepare the country for the unexpected, such as foot-and-mouth or bird flu. We need a good mechanism for detecting and dealing with nasty disease outbreaks, but where is the evidence that the current set-up is not working? Management of the most recent outbreaks has actually been pretty effective. If the Government was honest, the real driver for this is an urgent need to reduce expenditure. It is simply hiding conveniently behind an alleged EU desire to “harmonise cost-sharing policy by 2012”.

The new independent body would make all future animal health decisions, but policy on animal welfare will be left with the minister, who apparently doesn’t trust farmers with politically sensitive issues such as badger culling and the ritual slaughter of animals on religious grounds. The upshot will be that administrative bodies such as Animal Health will effectively have two masters. This is a recipe for disaster. It is also one of the reasons that the Scots and the Welsh have disassociated themselves from the English plan, saying they don’t think a new body is either needed or will be helpful. Celtic officials have been saying in private that they think it will cause chaos.

Nor is there any logic in the Government’s assertion that animal producers, through its insurers, should pay the nation’s bills for notifiable diseases. Car manufacturers do not meet the costs of road traffic accidents. Farmers spend a fortune on biosecurity and disease management, reducing the risk of notifiable diseases and other health problems spreading. Also bear in mind that gamefarmers, uniquely among all livestock keepers, are currently
liable for business rates because, absurdly, they do not benefit from the “agricultural” exemption. In short, the gamefarming industry is already saying more than its fair whack to Government.

How could the insurance scheme be operated fairly? Would a massive gamefarm, with indoor units, computerised systems and a very low mortality rate pay more or less than a badly managed rearing field with fewer birds, but a higher disease risk? The consultation says vague things about risk being taken into account, even suggesting that keepers near to potential bird flu hotspots such as water bodies should pay more, but there is no detail on who would carry out meaningful risk assessments, let alone pay for them.

Finally, for any of this to work there will have to be an up-to-date, verifiable register of exactly who owns what animals, where, and in what conditions at any one time. In the light of recent events, how secure will that database be? What would such a bureaucratic nightmare cost? Why should the game industry pay three times for the same bird — in the hatchery, on the rearing field and in the release pen?

Recently described by the National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall as “One of the most ill-thought-out consultations I’ve ever read,” this half-baked scheme should either be radically changed or preferably scrapped. The public consultation on DEFRA’s website closes at the end of June and there are some regional meetings to which anyone can go along, find out more and make a comment. If you feel strongly, now is the time to have your say.

Charles Nodder is the political adviser to the Game Farmers’ Association 