Value of sheep industry threatened by Brexit

The sheep sector is a major contributor to the UK economy and remains invaluable to the South West – but Brexit could put it in a “very vulnerable position”, a report has warned.

The Rural Business School at Duchy College was commissioned by the NFU to produce a report highlighting the value of the sheep industry to the wider economy.

The UK produced 300,200 tonnes of mutton and lamb in 2015. England has more than 15 million sheep, 45% of the UK sheep flock, which produce 66% of the UK’s total sheepmeat.

 

The college’s report focused on the three largest sheep-producing regions in England: the North East (including Yorkshire and Humber), the South West and the North West. Together they represent two-thirds of England’s sheep production.

See also: How to review your farm business to prepare for Brexit

The NFU’s South West team have used the report to “count the value” of their sheep industry, which remains a vital part of the region’s economy and important to the environment. 

Across the South West there are 7,389 sheep farms, with a total of about 3.1 million sheep, 21% of England’s sheep. The South West produces 40,600 tonnes of sheepmeat and offal.

 

These farms employ 7,000 people directly and there are almost 23,000 other jobs linked to the industry, contributing nearly £60m to the economy in terms of employment.

The report highlights how much sheep farming can help the environment. The sheep industry in the South West has provided 107,000ha of land managed under entry-level stewardship, 28,000ha of land managed under higher-level stewardship, 184ha of newly planted or restocked woodland, and 627km of newly planted or restored hedgerows.

Brexit risk

The report also warned that Brexit poses a risk to the future of sheep farming, a sector that has high reliance on support in the form of direct payments and subsidies.

According to the authors, Brexit could put the sector in a “very vulnerable position” because of the likelihood of the reduction or removal of direct subsidies, and lower prices for sheepmeat, as a result of increased domestic supply if less is exported to the EU. Exports are important to the sector and currently 95% go to EU countries.

 

In order to keep the industry healthy, the report concludes, there is a need for “more transparency” further down the food chain, by encouraging a greater proportion of product to meet market specification through price incentives, and producers developing their business models on a margin-driven basis, encompassing innovation, product quality and consistency.

Colin Rowland, Devon sheep farmer and chairman of the NFU South West livestock board, said that although the report made it clear sheep farming has a great deal to offer, the sector also has the potential to be the hardest hit by Brexit.

He added: “Ultimately, we want to see a thriving and profitable sheep sector that delivers environmental, social and economic benefits.”

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