ONE of the biggest challenges facing farmers in Wensleydale is how to win better returns by marketing their own product.

Most of the lamb from the dale goes to North Wales, where it is slaughtered, processed and marketed as Welsh lamb. The farmers pay on average £1.20 a lamb in transport costs - the challenge was to see how it could be marketed locally.

Mr Maurice Hall, manager of Hawes auction mart, put his views to a Settle-Carlisle business liaison group meeting at the Dales countryside museum in Hawes. He believed that, if producers got together and marketed the lamb themselves, they could charge the same price but improve returns by saving on transport costs.

Traditionally the dale had bred stock which had been sold on to lowland areas for finishing. The secret was to try to sell the end product, not the intermediate. "That is a big challenge and one which will require a lot of work," said Mr Hall.

The new abattoir at Bainbridge would create enormous potential for local farmers. Mr Hall said many producers had been in trouble before foot-and-mouth struck. They had already known the industry would have to change.

When he was appointed manager at Hawes two years ago, he sensed the area was looking for new ways forward and encouraged farmers to come up with ideas. The biggest single problem was the lack of control over the end product. "But I suggest this abattoir facility will give us the chance to take control of our meat product," he said, and it offered the possibility of local branding.

Earlier, Mr Richard Wells, North of England correspondent for the BBC, who lives in Wensleydale, applauded plans for the local abattoir. "It should give farmers a chance to fight against the policy to close abattoirs and prove a much needed boost to the local economy," he said.

A passionate believer in a vibrant rural economy and community, he believed the area should not entrust anyone else to help its recovery. Mr Wells had heard many conspiracy theories with regard to the foot-and-mouth crisis but was a firm believer in the "cock-up" theory.

The Devon inquiry had been damning about the government's handling of the disease; the government refused to hold a public inquiry, and the appalling affair of scientists not realising they were testing cows' brains instead of sheep all supported the cock-up theory.

"What is beyond dispute is the terrible legacy foot-and-mouth has left in rural areas, on farms, auction marts, businesses and tourism," said Mr Wells.

Mr Hall also believed in the cock-up theory, saying the biggest was on February 20, 24 hours after the disease was suspected in an abattoir. If Mr Nick Brown, then Agriculture Minister, had immediately banned all livestock movements the disease would not have spread the way it did. Instead, three days elapsed.

The well-attended meeting on Wednesday of last week also heard from three local businesses which had suffered badly from foot-and-mouth but which were fighting back.