A “hard” Brexit which sees the UK leave the EU single market will be disastrous for the British lamb sector, say sheep industry leaders.
The National Sheep Association (NSA) said it did not support the prospect of the UK walking away from the single market being used as a negotiating position during Brexit talks.
It comes amid expectations a speech due to be made by prime minister Theresa May on Tuesday (17 January) will signal that a hard Brexit is on the cards.
Several Sunday newspapers reported that Mrs May will use a speech at Lancaster House, London, to say the UK is prepared to leave the single market.
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said an immediate move away from the single market at the point of departure from the EU could be disastrous to UK sheep farmers.
It would have a devastating impact on the UK’s agricultural sustainability, environmental protection and rural communities and infrastructure, he warned.
Some 30-40% of the UK’s total lamb crop is exported, with some 96% of this output going to countries within the EU, said Mr Stocker.
“Any loss of access or tariff placed on this, coupled with the absence of alternative trade options, will not only cause huge disruption to trade but an almost inevitable fall in farmgate prices.
“If this were to happen at the same time as the industry is facing extensive uncertainty around farm support payments, the potential impact on the UK sheep sector would be crippling.
“The UK simply cannot afford to leave the single market and pass any costs of tariffs back to the agricultural industry until alternative and workable trade deals are developed elsewhere.”
Mr Stocker said sheep producers would need a long transitional period if the UK was were to leave the single market.
“NSA understands the need for a tough negotiating stance, but our exit from the EU needs to be done with a clear vision for the future so that businesses can plan and adapt.
“Sheep farming, like most farming sectors, is a long-term activity where decisions taken today may take years to come to fruition.”
A two-year run-up to a hard Brexit would be “nowhere near long enough to steer the sheep farming industry through one of the most seismic changes we could possibly face”.
The National Pig Association (NPA) has also called for a fair deal on trade – a move which has seen pig sector representatives invited to outline their position to Downing Street.
Association chairman Richard Lister, chief executive Zoe Davies and policy services manager Lizzie Wilson will meet Brexit minister David Jones on 8 February.
Mr Lister said: “We will be seeking a fair deal for British pig farmers on trade, while retaining access full-time to EU labour will be an absolute priority for our sector.”
Mr Jones has told the NPA he would be pleased to meet the organisation to “discuss any concerns and the position of the British pig industry following the referendum”.