Opinion

‘We must act now to protect one of the UK’s most valuable farming sectors’

The physical output of the sheep sector in 2019 is currently being determined as farmers put their rams in with breeding ewe flocks the length and breadth of the United Kingdom

But what are the economic prospects for flock owners as they ‘look forward’ to a post-Brexit world? Next year’s lamb crop will be the first to come to market within a scenario that will see the UK divorced from the European Union.

The introduction of levies on sheep meat exports to France would have a very negative impact on the returns received by flock owners throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

In addition, the imposition of similar levies, in tandem with border checks, could deal a similar blow to producers in Northern Ireland.

But these are worst-case scenarios. On the other hand, a reasonable Brexit trade deal in tandem with a stronger focus on environment-related support measures post 2022 could see the sheep sector look forward to a very healthy future.

Trade issues and the evolution of the Brexit talks will impact very strongly on the prospects of the industry, more so than would be the case with any other farm sector.

In overall terms, the UK is a net exporter of lamb and mutton. So any Brexit deal that serves to make markets on mainland Europe less attractive really is a bad news story for the sheep industry as a whole.

It should also be pointed out that the sector did extremely well out of the last Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform package.

The agreement to move in the direction of an area-based support system suited flock owners, particularly those upland producers who run relatively small numbers of ewes over large acreages.

It’s obviously important for the sector to maintain these gains once London starts setting its own agricultural policy priorities.

But, irrespective of all these issues, it is important that a sustainable sheep sector is maintained throughout the United Kingdom.

Breeding ewe flocks are the backbone of our upland communities while lowland sheep enterprises complement most beef production systems.

Sheep output also makes an important contribution to the red meat processing sector as a whole. From a marketing point of view, sheep tick all the boxes. The industry is predominantly grass-based, giving it a very natural and wholesome image.

There is also scope to expand the sector, both in terms of improving efficiency levels and growing ewe numbers. But all of this is predicated on getting a Brexit deal that meets the real needs of farmers and processors.

The message to the farming unions and the National Sheep Association is a very simple one: Act now to protect one of the United Kingdom’s most valuable farming sectors