Town & Country
The value of sheep farming
UPLAND sheep farmers are fighting back against accusations that their animals cause flooding and biodiversity loss with a report that highlights the wider benefits their way of life brings to local communities. Entitled The Complementary Role of Sheep in Upland and Hill Areas, it comes as hill farmers fear being overlooked in discussions about post-brexit agriculture. The report, which highlights the contribution of sheep to the rural economy, heritage and landscape, says it’s the dramatic reduction in flock numbers that can cause habitat degradation and points out that severe flooding has mostly occurred since that decrease.
The National Sheep Association (NSA) has had enough of the insults of environmental campaigners such as George Monbiot, who regularly talks about ‘sheepwrecked hills’ covered in ‘woolly maggots’, and others who would like to ‘re-wild’ the moors. ‘Much of this [threat] is due to misguided policy direction and lack of understanding of the many by-products of upland sheep farming,’ comments NSA chief executive Phil Stocker.
The UK is home to 25% of the EU flock; it produces one-third of EU sheep meat and is the sixth biggest producer in the world, yet the industry struggles to compete with cheaper meats and imports and to get across the message that animals reared outside on grass—as hill sheep are—produce far healthier meat, with much greater Vitamin E content.
UK sheep also have more genetic variety than any other country— there are more than 60 pure breeds and 80-plus breed societies here, some two-thirds of which are connected to hill or upland sheep; many other countries have a mere handful.
The report suggests that farmers can do more to exploit niche markets for breed-specific meat ( Town & Country, July 27), although this has limited potential, and that tree planting can be beneficial for shelter at lambing time, plus it highlights the carbon-storing properties of fleeces. Derbyshire farmer David Griffiths and his wife, Karen, run the Woolly Roadshow to educate people about the value of wool. ‘Years ago, our farmers valued their wool and sheepskins as much as their meat, but we allowed people to tell us fleeces were of little value,’ says Mrs Griffiths. ‘We need to re-educate everyone about their true value.’
The NSA report also points out that almost all hill farmers in the UK are exempt from the EU’S greening requirements because they are already delivering the correct levels of public benefit through permanent pasture and care of ecosystems. This is achieved despite the hazards of dogs chasing sheep and walkers leaving gates open and dropping litter. The NSA says that the contribution of hill farmers should be recognised when
post-brexit agricultural policy is discussed and that future agri-environment payments should be more dependent on results and less on income foregone.
Responsible grazing can do much to control bracken and restore heather, according to Dumfriesshire farmer Hamish Waugh, who contrasts an area grazed by a rate of one ewe per two acres which is ‘knee-deep’ in heather to a patch that has had no stock for 28 years and has only sketchy growth. ‘I believe this shows the effect of under-grazing from the partial or total removal of sheep is not always what is desired,’ he comments.
In Co Antrim, Maurice Mchenry has won awards for biodiversity, including for ‘the most beautiful farm in Northern Ireland’. He reports: ‘Surveys have found 33 species of birds and at least five sites for frogs. Sheep ensure diverse flora and fauna and ensure the natural vegetation does not grow unchecked and smother the smaller plants.’ He adds: Sheep do not poach the wet areas on the moorland or species-rich grassland and so this land is protected.’ Last weekend, shepherds in the Forest of Dean were due to protest at the district council’s new legislation forbidding sheep to enter the village of Bream, where commoners’ rights have existed since at least the Norman Conquest. Apparently, residents have been complaining about dung, loud baa- ing and snacking on rosebushes. Anyone allowing sheep to ‘enter and remain’ in the village will face a fine of up to £1,000.