Suffolk sheep farmers have hit out at a decision by a supermarket giant to end a commitment to sourcing 100% British lamb.

Morrisons said it was responding to a "blunt commercial reality" as it trials cheaper lamb imported from New Zealand in 39 of its stores alongside British lamb.

Sheep and vegetable farmer Tim Pratt of Wantisden Hall Farms, near Woodbridge, and local food campaigner Caroline Cranbrook shared the National Sheep Association's (NSA) concerns about its impact on the British industry. 

Although recent lamb prices have been high, many farmers are looking at the cost-effectiveness of some of their food production activities.

It is feared that many could decide that payments for new environmental schemes could be more financially rewarding and less hassle.

East Anglian Daily Times:

Mr Pratt described the decision as "disappointing" at a time when most sheep farmers could really do with the support.

"It's been a difficult couple of years and undoubtedly with the introduction of Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and other environmental schemes farmers are looking at their farm businesses questioning what to do," he said.

"Lamb prices have been strong this spring but at a level which is more realistic to the cost of production and undoubtedly this is due to a reduction in numbers coming forward.

"I believe the reduction is due to the new SFI and Countryside Stewardship Schemes (CSS) as farmers are opting for a lower risk business structure and with supermarkets having such control over the market, prices do fluctuate quite considerably.

"Unfortunately whatever customers say about welfare and quality, too many still buy on price. By importing New Zealand lamb, that will be cheaper, UK demand will be hit."

Lady Cranbrook - whose family farm sheep at Great Glemham - said grazing was an important part of the region's biodiversity efforts.

"Such diverse habitats as the Ouse washes, the breckland, the Suffolk river valleys, our meadows and myriads of small nature reserves need to be grazed in order to maintain their wildlife," she said.

"In a predominantly arable area, grazing animals are the guardians of the landscape. But at the same time they need an economic use. For cattle and sheep, this is generally as meat sold by butchers and farm shops, fulfilling the increasing demand for locally produced food."

She added that there was an environmental cost involved in transporting meat to Britain from the other side of the world.

East Anglian Daily Times: Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival president Lady Caroline Cranbrook at Snape Maltings

Luckily the county was well supplied by independent butchers, she said, including Bramfield Meats which sources from local farms and supplies about 200 butchers and farm shops. She urged consumers to buy local and support the Suffolk landscape.

"At this time of year, the good price the sheep farmers receive is a well-deserved bonus after the low returns in recent years," she added.

NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said they learnt about it as they returned from the Field to Fork Summit hosted by prime minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday (May 14).

"An event that was designed to show support for UK agriculture and where the supermarket itself had a presence promoting its commitment to British farmers. So the timing of this announcement is really quite unbelievable.

“This is a very poor decision, and something NSA warned could happen during the negotiations around the new trade deals agreed with Australia and New Zealand last year.”

UK Sheep Farmers were receiving strong prices for their produce in recent months, he admitted, but needed a sustainable income to allow for much-needed reinvestment into their farms.

The sector has faced "seriously challenging" weather conditions - and virus threats from Schmallenberg and Bluetongue, he added.

"All these things are causing a level of uncertainty amongst many farmers. The last thing UK producers now need is for their prices to be undermined by cheaper imports,” he said.

A Morrisons spokeswoman said: "Morrisons will later this week start a trial selling New Zealand lamb in 39 stores.   

"The trial follows an extensive exercise listening to customers who were very clear that they want us to sell lamb at a more accessible price all year round. 

"The blunt commercial reality is that New Zealand lamb is cheaper to source, and therefore cheaper to sell, than British lamb. 

"We will remain 100% British lamb on all our butchers' counters, and the New Zealand lamb will of course be clearly labelled so customers in these trial stores will see the difference and can make a choice. 

"We do not intend this move to mean a reduction in the overall volumes of lamb that we buy directly from British farmers."