UP to 359 Welsh farms are still operating under restrictions imposed in the wake of Chernobyl, more than two decades after the Soviet nuclear plant went into meltdown.
The Food Standards Agency Wales revealed the figure before today’s 22nd anniversary of the largest nuclear accident in history.
Upland farms in Wales were caught out by unfortunate circumstances in the wake of the disaster. Heavy rain washed radioactive material from clouds onto fields.
The radiation is absorbed from the soil by plants, which are then eaten by sheep.
For the hundreds of Welsh farmers still living with Chernobyl’s legacy, the restrictions mean their animals are only allowed to enter the food chain after rigorous safety tests.
Vice-president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) Glyn Roberts, who works National Trust land at Ysbyty Ifan, near Betws-y-Coed, Conwy, is one of those still grappling with the restrictions.
Mr Roberts has two farms – Dylasau Uchaf spread over 220 acres of hillside and the much- larger Trawnant in the mountains.
The 850-acre Trawnant is subject to the Chernobyl restrictions while his hill farm is exempt.
As a result, if animals are moved between the two habitats, they must be strictly monitored.
In fact, Mr Roberts, 50, needs permission from Assembly Government agriculture officials to switch animals between the two locations. “In September and October, when I bring the sheep down from the mountain to the hill farm, I have to paint a red mark on them,” he said. “When there’s a red mark on the sheep, the Welsh Assembly Government comes to count them and they cannot be used for human consumption.”
Mr Roberts, and all other Welsh farmers subject to the restrictions, have to make a request to Assembly officials if they want painted sheep to enter the food chain.
Only if shown to be safe following radiation testing are the animals declared fit for human consumption. If they are shown to have more 1,000 becquerels per kilogram, they cannot enter the food chain.
A compensation scheme sees them receive £1.30 every time a lamb has to be re-tested. Farmers can opt to do this if the animals are recorded at more than 1,000 becquerels by an initial test.
But Mr Roberts said the £1.30 figure has not changed since the scheme was introduced more than two decades ago. He said one positive aspect of the restrictions is that Welsh lamb has an unparalleled reputation for safety.
The Gomel region of neighbouring Belarus received 70% of the fall-out. No-one knows precisely how many people died after Chernobyl. The Soviet authorities forbade doctors to record the word “radiation” on death certificates. But the World Health Organisation estimates at least 4,000 died of cancer due to the catastrophe.
The Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline organises holidays here for affected youngsters. Ann Sage and her husband Dave, both members, say a trip to Wales can add two years to the life of a child from Belarus.
Mrs Sage, 49, from Bridgend, said: “Just seeing them enjoying life so much while they’re here is so rewarding.”