The Northern Ireland sheep sector is not specifically mentioned in the ‘Future Agricultural Policy Proposals’ discussion paper.

The aforementioned measure was put out for public consultation by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) three months ago.

Hence the absolute significance for the sector of the ‘vision documents’ recently produced by the Northern Ireland (NI) sheep industry taskforce.

Two inter-related publications have been produced – the vision document itself and the accompanying stimulus package overview.

The Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) has been centrally involved with the work of the taskforce.

Also involved are: Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU); Northern Ireland Meat Exporters’ Association (NIMEA); Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA) and National Sheep Association (NSA).

Northern Ireland sheep sector

The over-arching objective of the taskforce has been to deliver a resilient, vibrant and sustainable sheep industry.

The work of the taskforce has already identified that the sheep industry can use leading edge technologies to deliver safe high-quality meat and wool through increased productivity.

It will also add value by increasing carbon sequestration, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity and enhancing landscape biodiversity.

Critical within all of this will be the need to maintain the mosaic landscape of NI’s hills and uplands, while also securing social cohesion, according to the LMC.

Delivering this level of resilience will be achieved through the outworking of five priority action points.

The first is to increase the access to quality data and the use of that data by developing a national database and access framework.

There is also an identified need to increase animal productivity through the attainment of high health and welfare standards, genetic improvement, and resource planning.

The requirement to increase environmental sustainability through reducing GHG emissions, sequestering carbon, improving soil and water management has also be identified.

These targets are expected to be achieved via increased access to knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange to update knowledge and skills.

And, finally, the opportunity to maximise market opportunity for meat and wool must be secured.

Economic impact

Previous studies have shown that the presence of sheep production in the rural economy is vital to both the social and cultural capital of rural regions, particularly as they are often located in marginal or economically disadvantaged areas.

There are a range of sheep breeds used in NI from hill to lowland breeds and all are vitally important in delivering a productive and profitable national flock.

LMC chief executive, Ian Stevenson commented: “Sheep farming is part of the fabric of NI agriculture, with almost four in 10 farm businesses contributing to sheep production.

“At a very fundamental level, the sector supports primary producers and their families, but also generates employment throughout the supply chain and the wider economy.

“LMC is committed to working with industry stakeholders to enhance productivity while meeting attainable sustainability targets,” he added.