A disorderly Brexit could be the last straw for a valuable agricultural sector, already under attack from Green activists and government
Of all the animals that are integral to our island story the sheep is perhaps the most intertwined of all. Yes, the unassuming woolly creatures you count in your head to get to sleep, the muddle-headed animals that stand as metaphors for passivity and indecisiveness. That fundamental component of the British constitution, the Woolsack in the House of Lords, was placed there by Edward III to emphasise the importance of sheep to the British economy. Sheep were behind the controversial enclosure acts that were the catalyst for the creation of the iconic Beatrix Potter landscape we know today. And no doubt the monastic flocks played a part in Henry VIII’s calculations. Later, sheep took the blame for the Highland Clearances as lairds moved crofters off the land to make way for flocks that would produce the mutton to feed Victorian Britain. In recent decades our relations with the EU have often been characterised by various lamb wars. For rural people images of burning sheep during the foot-and-mouth epidemic are a painful reminder of the Blair government.
So it is with our own era. With the news dominated by Brexit and full of the noisy protests of vegans and climate-change warriors, the sheep industry is once again in ministerial in-trays. Martin van der Weyer recently warned in the Spectator that “the very worst line of business, if we’re heading for a no-deal Brexit” would be sheep farming. The National Sheep Association would agree. We still have one of the largest sheep populations in the world. The NSA highlights the fact that of the sheep meat from our national flock of around 35 million (as opposed to only 5.25 million in the USA — who knew?), 40 per cent is exported, of which 96 per cent goes to the EU, mostly to France.
A disorderly Brexit would be a very bad deal for the NSA as under World Trade Organisation rules sheep meat has a particularly high tariff of more than 40 per cent, outweighing any beneficial impact from a further fall in the value of sterling. Although there is increased demand from China, currently being exploited by the nimble New Zealanders, it could take several years to access new markets. Other Brexit fears are that subsidies, without which few sheep farms would be sustainable, may be “dialled down”, in Defra speak, after 2022. And abattoirs, which rely on vets to stay legal, may be forced to close without freedom of movement as 90 per cent of abattoir vets are from EU countries.
Farmers’ biggest concern of all is that a move away from protectionism towards free trade will repeat the terrible blow suffered by the rural economy following the repeal of the Corn Laws, and that farmers’ livelihoods will be sacrificed in a wave of trade deals with the New World. Our ability to compete is compromised by some of the highest labour costs in the world and a regulatory burden we have inherited from the EU and will probably keep. For example, every sheep is tagged with an individual number, something that not even New Zealand has.
I should declare an interest at this point. As a lowland beef and arable farmer I am less exposed to the lamb market than some, but the income from wintering 700 Romney hoggs (female lambs under a year old) helps to keep the bank manager happy. They play a vital role in managing my grassland organically by cleansing the pasture of the intestinal worms that prey on my cattle in the summer, and they also control the poisonous ragwort so that I don’t need to spray it. The sheep went home to the hills recently, much to my relief after four months of haphazardly shepherding them, although the fields look bereft without them as the cattle are still inside. Their owner, Marcus Maxwell, is a former Sheep Farmer of the Year and an efficient, outward-looking farmer with interests in New Zealand as well as Scotland. He can’t remember a more uncertain time in his 30 years of farming. As we loaded them he confided his fears: “Will Europe continue to take our lamb? Perhaps they will but it could be at much lower prices for us. Can we afford to keep going?” He shrugged.
In more robust times politicians might have invoked the Dunkirk spirit and told British housewives that it is their patriotic duty to eat more lamb as the nation adapts to Brexit. But the relentless drip of Green propaganda directed against the livestock industry by vegans and high-profile activists means that this is unlikely, particularly with Michael Gove presenting himself as environmentally friendly and talking of a “Green Brexit”.
In fairness to the Brexiteers, there was a plan to mitigate the effects of free trade. The former Defra Secretary Owen Patterson presented a paper on post-Brexit agricultural policy that recognised the importance of livestock farming in marginal areas for underpinning the tourist industry and maintaining rural communities. He advocated following the Swiss model that would see generous subsidies continuing for certain sectors, which could be allowed within WTO rules. But would the plan survive the public spending rows that would follow Brexit?
Meanwhile, there is a revolution going on in the hills and glens of upland Britain. Farmers are giving up their leases and shepherds are being laid off and their flocks culled to make way for trees. Landowners have read the Brexit writing on the wall and are opting for forestry instead, one commodity that is definitely on the up as industries replace plastic with wood fibres and timber is in demand to fuel biomass plants. It is being called the new Highland Clearances in the house journal of Scottish agriculture, the Scottish Farmer. This trend is being quietly aided and abetted by both Westminster and Holyrood. The Scottish government has just cut by 20 per cent the Less Favoured Area Payment, a subsidy which most Scottish sheep farmers receive, in a move widely seen as an attempt to push marginal farming businesses out. The Orwellian mantra of “ruminants bad, trees good” has been swallowed whole by the politicians. The idea that primordial Britain was ever covered in close-canopy forest is easily disproved by analysis of our native flora and fauna but our policymakers still encourage it in a bid to meet climate-change targets. The SNP/Green Holyrood coalition has self-imposed a climate change target redolent of one of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans. Counterintuitively, given their usual refrain about righting the wrongs of the Clearances, they want to cover 21 per cent of Scotland in trees by 2032 (from 17 per cent in 2000). So the hills of Scotland are being blanketed in sitka spruce, a native of the North Pacific with no discernible benefits for British wildlife, silencing forever the haunting cry of the curlew and the cackle of the grouse, while, elsewhere on the planet, rainforests are cut down to replace the lost protein from British livestock farming with genetically modified soya.
It is a bewildering time for sheep farmers. They have grown up believing that they are responsible stewards of the countryside, helping to feed and clothe the nation. But, despite politicians talking green, wool is barely worth the cost of shearing. The world persists in using polluting man-made fibres for clothing and insulation, to the point where breeds like the Wiltshire Horn that shed their wool naturally have become popular.
Livestock farmers now receive death threats from vegans on social media and their animals have to run the gauntlet of demonstrators outside abattoirs. The Green lobby have also been behind moves to reintroduce species that prey directly on sheep like the lynx, possibly earmarked for the Kielder Forest, and the white-tailed eagle, scourge of lambing fields on the west coast of Scotland. Protection of other species such as the raven can easily cause a marginal farming operation to go into loss at lambing time. There are reports of fields flooding along Perthshire river banks as beavers (now to be given protected status in Scotland) block drains. Sheep farmers complain that they are now an endangered species being chased out of the countryside.
The case against sheep, put forward by eco-activists like George Monbiot, is a complex one, rather like the fragile ecology of the uplands. Some of it is a heady mixture of anti-capitalism and pseudo-environmentalism fed by a steady stream of fake science. However, there is some justification in the charge that over-grazing by sheep in the uplands has degraded the environment in some places. But equally it could be argued that under-grazing, or increasingly no grazing, has allowed moorland to revert to bracken and woody heather with loss of habitat for birds. Where there is muck there may not be brass, but there are insects and invertebrates, and therefore wildlife. Sheep also comb moorland for ticks, which are then destroyed when they are dipped, improving the health not just of hiking humans but also of birds and wild mammals. The lack of management for sheep (and grouse, which is what really annoys the leftists) also leaves moorlands vulnerable to fires, as happened on Saddleworth Moor in 2018. Monbiot claimed, rather implausibly, that fires are more likely where moorland is managed for grouse shooting. But the scientific consensus was that lack of active management, by controlled burning to produce short heather for sheep and grouse, had led to Saddleworth, which is managed by the RSPB, becoming a tinderbox of rank vegetation.
The claims and counter-claims over wildfires are typical of the debate. Another charge levelled at sheep is that they fart, as do humans — especially vegetarians — and most other mammals. But it is sheep and other ruminants that are blamed for greenhouse gases. Farmers argue that it is simply impossible to grow vegetables on much of the land occupied by sheep, and that the grassland acts as a sink for the methane, in a virtuous cycle. The fact that sheep manure benefits soil health, helping it both to absorb water and sequester greenhouse gases, is glossed over as an inconvenient truth. One side blames grazing for increased run-off and landslides. The other side points out that grazing helps to maintain a thick sward of vegetation and sheep muck helps bind the soil together so that landslides are less likely.
When or if we leave the EU, British politicians alone will need to weigh up the arguments. The implications of a collapse in the sheep industry are far-reaching. Depopulation of remote rural communities may be one consequence as the rural economy shrinks. Monbiot has criticised agricultural subsidies for contributing to a “sheepwrecked” landscape, but the National Farmers’ Union argues that for every pound of subsidy given to British farmers, £5.30 is spent by agriculture in the rural economy. Sheep have always been the affordable bottom rung of the ladder for new entrants wanting to farm. The traditional route into agriculture has been for young farmers to buy a few ewes and rent some grazing to build up the stock and capital required to take on a farm tenancy. If they can no longer make it work it will have a deep and lasting effect on the human resources of all British farming.