By Debbie James

Welsh beef and sheep farmers have turned their backs on thousands of pounds of funding that could potentially have improved the technical and financial performance of their businesses.

The Welsh Government had allocated around £2.15m from its EU Transition Fund for 2000 Welsh red meat producers to benchmark their performance to prepare for Brexit – but Wales’ rural affairs secretary has revealed that only 1600 signed up.

Lesley Griffiths suggested farmers could be “burying their heads in the sand’’ about Brexit.

When she launched the scheme last October she described it as a “crucial investment for the sector at this difficult and challenging time’’.

During a recent briefing at Cardiff Bay, Ms Griffiths said the response had been disappointing.

“Having done a similar piece of work with the Welsh dairy sector I hoped and expected that the scheme would be over-subscribed,’’ she admitted.

“Maybe farmers are benchmarking anyway but I am a bit concerned that some of them are not going to be as ready as they could be (for Brexit).’’

During the briefing, Ms Griffiths revealed that contingency plans were being drawn up for the Welsh sheep sector – 90 per cent of lamb produced in Wales is exported to Europe.

She said she had “great concern’’ for the sheep sector.

“I can’t go into details about this contingency plan because it is being worked up but we have also got to manage expectation. We don’t have money to slosh around that we can use but I do think it is really important that we work with farmers so that they can understand the threats to their businesses.’’

A government-led report presented in January to the ministerial stakeholder group – representatives of the farming industry including unions – had demonstrated that it was not just the sheep sector that could be in crisis, Ms Griffiths pointed out.

And the geographical location of farms will be influential to the scale of the impact on different sectors, the modelling work had shown.

“It is very confidential work but I think it will be very useful going forward for our contingency planning,’’ said Ms Griffiths.

She denied that the government was not being open about the contingency plans with stakeholders.

“It is not being done behind closed doors, of course all will be involved. We shared information with the stakeholders last week, the farming unions were there so they have seen the work we are doing to move forward with those plans.’’

One of the Welsh sheep sector’s greatest fears is the removal of import tariffs that could see lamb from New Zealand flood the UK market.

The New Zealand Prime Minister insists that British food producers have nothing to fear from a New Zealand–UK trade deal but Ms Griffiths said she was concerned, and that concern extended to other exporting countries, not just New Zealand.