Town & Coun­try

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Edited by Kate Green

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.

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