24 March 1999
Hill farmers slam ‘park-keeper’ notion
By FWi staff
HILL farmers have reacted angrily to suggestions that they should concentrate on park-keeping rather than farming because their sheep produce low-quality meat.
Mike Roper, a Ministry of Agriculture meat trade advisor, said hill farmers should produce fewer sheep and become environmental managers of the uplands.
“Genes from hill flocks were causing problems with meat quality,” Mr Roper told delegates at the British Society of Animal Science conference at Scarborough.
“It may be that the most appropriate production for hill sheep would be managing the environment,” he said.
Hill farmers queried Mr Ropers claims that only 20-40% of hill lambs meet market requirements because hill sheep are rarely bred purposely for meat.
Instead, hill sheep offspring are sold as replacement sheep for lowland farms, which use them to produce fat lambs that could not be reared in the harsh hill climate.
John Jackson, a Cumbrian hill farmer who has sent 500 sheep to lowland Somerset every year for the past 14 years, said Mr Roper had failed to understand the vital role of hill farmers.
“Its the hill farmers who breed the replacement sheep for lowland producers,” he said.
“If there werent any sheep in the hills, there wouldnt be any sheep in the lowlands.”
Peter Allen, chairman of the NFU hill-farming committee, said he too was angered and disappointed with Mr Ropers comments.
“If Mr Roper wants lawnmowers, then fine,” he said. “But to get those lawnmowers you need a sensible breeding programme and every responsible farmer has one of those.”
Mr Allen, who farms on the edge of the Lake District, said hill farmers maintained one of the most extensive and environmentally-friendly farming systems in the country.
“You cant turn a hill sheep into a fat pig on the top of Helvellyn,” he said.
John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said implementing Mr Ropers ideas threatened to “fundamentally destroy” the structure of the British sheep industry.
“Mr Roper is talking unsustainable rubbish,” he said.
“Anyone who tries to break the chain between the hills and lowland is going to meet fierce resistance from farmers.”