Why the UK sheep industry feels like the Brexit project’s sacrificial lamb
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Sheep farmers are furious after environment secretary George Eustice appeared to suggest that ‘mixed’ livestock enterprises could pivot towards beef production if the bottom falls out of the lamb market post-Brexit.
Sheep farmer Tim Crick has 2,500 pregnant ewes scattered across fields stretching from Somerleyton, near Lowestoft, to the River Orwell in Ipswich.
Brexit is looming and he’s very worried about the future. Given the seasonal nature of his business he sees no alternative but to carry on as normal and prepare for the spring lambing season. Not to do so would be to cut his business off at the knees.
But these are far from normal times.
“I have no great feeling of hope at the moment,” he admits. “It’s certainly looking like the sheep sector could suffer severely. It could be that we are going to suffer greatly at the expense of other sectors.”
Come January 1, 2021 — if the UK government doesn’t achieve a reasonable exit deal with the European Union (EU) — British sheep farmers could be faced with a crippling range of tariffs averaging at around 48% on their exports into the EU — and plummeting prices at home.
A whole range of UK farmed goods could be hit by a no-deal, but with EU countries accounting for 89% of all UK sheep meat exports, it’s considered one of the most vulnerable sectors.
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“You don’t want to let your nerves get frayed too much,” says Tim, who has been a sheep farmer for 35 years and is based at Benacre. “Our sheep are now pregnant ready for lambing next year. The option would have been not to put them in lamb and you are basically not carrying on your business.”
It’s a tough job and the wet autumn hasn’t been ideal for sheep farming. On top of that, terrible weather extremes this year have meant the grass hasn’t grown as it should.
He admits that he is moving into the unknown. His equipment is specialist and costly. He can’t use it to diversify into beef farming. His portable sheep handling system alone costs £12k to £15k and isn’t suitable for them. In any case, it’s not a sector he would to go into, he says. Sheep farming is not a highly profitable business, he adds. Margins are thin and it would not take much for the business to become loss-making. He employs two permanent workers and others on a seasonal basis.
“Obviously it worries me,” he says. “We are heading into the winter and next year totally blind as to what our profit or loss is going to be.”
Many sheep farmers are feeling angry, confused and unsure at what they see as a lack of clarity and support from the UK government.
In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday (November 15) environment secretary George Eustice raised hackles when he suggested that mixed sheep and beef farmers might pivot their operations to beef as a way of offsetting the effects of a ‘no-deal’.
The UK would be free to impose its own tariffs, Mr Eustice suggested.
“The price of lamb would rise in the EU. That would also mean that demand in the EU for lamb would go down and there would be a fall in the prices here in the UK in the short term. But also if we are not importing as much beef from Ireland then mixed beef and sheep enterprises would be able to diversify into beef,” he said.
That statement prompted an immediate and furious backlash from the industry. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs hurried out a press release suggesting the minister’s words had been misrepresented, and Mr Eustice stressed he did not say that all sheep farmers should diversify into beef.
The National Sheep Association (NSA) said it was “extremely concerning to hear the lack of understanding shown by Mr Eustice who NSA believes, having spent five years as farming minister, should have “better” knowledge of the UK’s sheep farming enterprises”.
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said Mr Eustice had angered many of the nation’s sheep farmers with his comments which he suggested failed to acknowledge the “unique and varied nature” of the sector.
“To suggest that many of our sheep farmers are mixed farmers is wrong. This assumption will enrage sheep farmers across the UK who have structured their farms to focus on sheep, and it will particularly antagonise our devolved nations where the landscape includes more remote areas of countryside, especially suited to sheep, and where buildings, machinery and farm infrastructure simply would not suit a sudden switch to cattle farming,” he said.
Andrew Foulds — a sheep farmer operating across Norfolk and Suffolk — is fuming.
“I’m absolutely appalled that having voted Tory all my life that a Tory minister of agriculture who comes from a farming background in Cornwall and understands a lot about farming can come up with such gibberish,” he says.
He has thousands of sheep he’s brought down from the Scottish borders to finish off on turnips and other crops in the fields. Right now the industry is “staring down the Brexit barrel”, he says. He has hopes that UK supermarkets will be supportive of the industry, though, and will help promote UK lamb post-Brexit.
“As a business we have made commitments to arable farmers throughout Norfolk and Suffolk to grow turnips. They are expecting us to turn up with sheep and graze them,” he says. “It’s quite an incredible state of affairs at the moment. It’s not just agriculture — there are lots of other industries in absolute turmoil but we are dealing with living things — we can’t just stop feeding our sheep and checking our sheep.”
Latest available DEFRA figures from 2016 show that the eastern region has around a 153k-strong breeding ewe flock, with 56k of those in Norfolk and a further 27k in Suffolk. In total there are an estimated 116k sheep and lambs in Norfolk, 60k in Suffolk and 336k across the region. These are managed by 557 grazing stock holdings in Norfolk and 426 in Suffolk.
Unlike Tim, Andrew is one of those ‘mixed’ farmers George Eustice refers to — but although he also farms beef, it’s a completely separate business and the two aren’t interchangeable, he insists, adding: “It doesn’t work like that.”
The whole infrastructure of the businesses won’t permit him to simply flip his business, he insists, and he is fearful for the future if there is a ‘no-deal’ outcome. “I can’t just change my business around and send them back to the borders,” he says.
If high tariff walls are imposed and sheep meat prices at home plummet, he is pessimistic for the future.
“I expect we’ll all go bust. We’ll all go broke along with thousands of other industries who haven’t really been thought about in all this.” More overleaf