Merino sheep in dry grass in Buninyong, Victoria, Australia© FLPA/John Eveson/REX/Shutterstock

A free-trade deal being proposed by Australia could have a “catastrophic effect” on the UK sheep industry, warns the National Sheep Association (NSA).

Australia is understood to have approached the UK for an unrestricted trade deal, which the NSA is fearful could see the UK swamped with imported Australian lamb.

The EU restricts imports of Australian lamb to just 20,000t/year of sheepmeat, which the country regularly comes close to fulfilling.

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But the UK will no longer be subject to this quota when it leaves the EU, meaning it could choose to increase its sheepmeat imports, which stand at 100,000t/year.

The UK sheep sector is already suffering unacceptably high levels of imports of New Zealand lamb… we certainly need to avoid making the situation worse by allowing Australian product to head our way too Phil Stocker National Sheep Association

“A free-trade deal with Australia or New Zealand may be beneficial for some UK industries but could have a catastrophic effect on UK sheep farmers and we cannot sit back and be sacrificed for the benefit of others,” said Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive.

“NSA understands Australia has been pushing to increase its EU quota for many years now, so there is no doubt it would send larger amounts of sheepmeat to Europe and the UK given the opportunity.

“The UK sheep sector is already suffering unacceptably high levels of imports of New Zealand lamb… we certainly need to avoid making the situation worse by allowing Australian product to head our way too,” said Mr Stocker.

Australia has other markets in sight

Australia was already pushing its annual sheepmeat import quota, but New Zealand was not, added Mark Kozlowski, senior analyst at ADHB Beef and Lamb.

“This means [Australia] would be the more likely nation to look to increase exports to the UK in the event of a free trade deal.

“But Australia views the US and Asia as more lucrative markets so it’s unlikely we would see the floodgates open”.

He added: “As with anything to do with Brexit, there are huge hypotheticals involved.

“Much would depend on the deal UK sheep farmers receive when we do leave the EU.”

The UK has not yet triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will decide how the country untethers itself from the EU after 40 years of union.

This means any trade deal with Australia would be unlikely to occur before 2020 at the earliest.

In 2015, Australia produced 700,000t of sheepmeat, of which it exported 277,000t, worth £869m and 181,000t of mutton with a value of £434m to the Middle East, USA and Asia, according to AHDB Beef and Lamb.