Claims by University of Sheffield academics that growing trees is financially and environmentally better than rearing sheep have been slammed as “fundamentally flawed” by the National Sheep Association (NSA).
The claims are contained in a new report, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, which calculated that most sheep farms in the UK make a loss without government subsidies.
The authors found that farmers with at least 25ha of land could turn a profit if they allowed it to naturally regenerate into native woodland and then sold the value of the carbon absorbed for as little as £3/t.
“If farmers were paid £15/t of carbon dioxide [the current going rate], by businesses and individuals looking to offset their emissions, forests of any size would make a profit,” claims the report.
Such a shift would also cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, support wildlife and help to prevent flooding.
Prof Colin Osborne, lead author of the study, said: “Sheep farming in the UK is not profitable without subsidies, but forests that sell carbon credits can be economically viable – so it makes sense for the government to help farmers transition.”
But NSA chief executive Phil Stocker believes these arguments are too simplistic and overlook the multiple benefits of rearing sheep.
“What these scientists ignore is that we have to look at land management on a multi-functional basis, not just one metric of carbon,” he said.
“Our sheep farmers are managing one of our most precious resources – grassland – while also producing fantastic and nutritious food from it.”
Grassland also builds and stores soil carbon, he added, and creates wildlife habitats which specifically benefit curlews, lapwing, skylarks and barn owls.
“It also enables people to improve their mental and physical wellbeing, and it avoids wildfires with their huge environmental consequences.”
Mr Stocker also challenged the report’s bias against farm support, pointing out that farmers no longer received a production subsidy, but were paid in recognition for keeping land in good agricultural and environmental condition, and for doing specific environmental works through schemes such as Countryside Stewardship.
Post Brexit, farm policies would see an even greater emphasis on paying sheep farmers for the provision of public goods, he added.
“I appreciate trees as much as anyone,” said Mr Stocker. “But sheep farming and our grasslands are some of our most benign land uses, with so many positive attributes.
“To think that we should create policies to destroy these by creating forests is shortsighted in the least.”