Kim Haywood, director of the UK's National Beef Association (NBA), says, "We are aware that many beef farmers are under short-term cash pressure that is not being helped by the unexpected easing of slaughter prices over the last three weeks."

"But we would urge them to take a long-term view and recognise that this autumn could be a good time to hold on to breeding stock. Important market trends are moving in the sector's favour."

Farmers are currently receiving the highest prices for beef cattle since 1995 – the year before the industry suffered a huge drop in consumer confidence as a result of BSE.

Higher ex-farm returns look good on paper, but many producers feel that they are not making enough profit to allow for future investment.

The decline in confidence throughout the beef sector is manifest in figures from the Scottish Government. Ten years ago, the beef breeding herd in Scotland, which is mostly based on the hills and uplands, totalled 534,520 head. As of June this year that figure had slumped to just over 484,000. No statistician has yet attempted to calculate the cost of this downturn to the rural economy, but it must be considerable.

During the first eight months of this year, UK abattoirs reported an increase of 20 per cent in the throughput of cull cows. Many of these additional 7,450 cattle were suckler cows more than capable of breeding calves that could have entered the food chain within two years.

The result is that supplies are increasingly tight, although there appears to be a growing resistance to higher retail prices as consumers switch to lower-value cuts.

The fall in the breeding herd has resulted in an 8 per cent decline in the number of prime cattle coming forward for slaughter in Scotland in the first nine months of this year, with a 4 per cent fall in England and Wales and a 12 per cent slump in Northern Ireland. Total UK beef production, including that from cull cows, is forecast to slip by at least 2 per cent in 2009.

Haywood said: "Domestic supplies are also being trimmed by export sales, which, so far this year, have risen by 12 per cent to 46,000 tonnes with a further 6 per cent increase anticipated in 2009 with sterling remaining weak against the euro.

"Given those circumstances, it is reasonable to think that too many breeding cows have already been taken out of the system and that every female that can produce a calf will be needed in the future."

Increasing beef and meat production in general is not a concept that sits well with Michael Appleby, the visiting professor of animal welfare at the Scottish Agricultural College.

Speaking before an invited audience in Edinburgh, he claimed that 18 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions were directly linked to the livestock industry. He said meat eating should become a "special event" as livestock use a vast quantity of the world's resources.