Sheep farming was once a mainstay of the British economy – the Speaker of the House of Lords sits on a woolsack in recognition of its power – and it remains significant today. A quarter of Europe’s sheep live here. Britain has more sheep farmers than it has dentists, librarians, paramedics, firefighters or fishermen. Around 45,000 farmers tend a national flock that peaks at more than 32 million sheep – one for every two people.
The sheep population fluctuates because each month around a million animals – mostly lambs – are killed for their meat, in an industry worth more than £1.2bn. Around 40 per cent of these are exported to the EU.
There is almost no market for British lamb beyond the EU, which accounts for more than 95 per cent of exports. World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs for importation of sheep products from “most favoured nations” into the EU vary by product, but they are generally steep. Whole lamb or sheep carcasses incur a 46 per cent tariff, while other products can be charged as much as 72 per cent.
This has led to growing concern among sheep farmers and those connected to the industry. Last month the shadow Brexit minister, Jenny Chapman, tweeted that the government’s “no-deal contingency plan… would require the slaughter and burial of up to 9 million sheep”. Michael Gove, who is in charge of the government’s no-deal planning, responded on Twitter that this was “mutton headed nonsense”.
Last week, sheep farmers herded their animals down Whitehall to highlight a report by the former chief economist of the National Farmers’ Union, Sean Rickard, which suggested that half of Britain’s farms could go out of business without protection from the effects of a no-deal Brexit.
Phil Stocker is the chief executive of the National Sheep Association, which represents sheep farmers. “At the moment,” Stocker explains, “if those tariffs came in… it would really mean that that trade couldn’t work”.
In the worst-case scenario, a trade wall would lead to “a complete glut on the marketplace here” as unsold meat flooded the British market. Farmers “would say, ‘I don’t know what to do with these stock – I can’t afford to feed them, because I don’t know if it’s going to pay, at the end of the day… we just need to get rid of them’”.
With costs mounting and no financial incentive to get their sheep to market, farmers might destroy their flocks in so-called “welfare culls”, to avoid the animals dying of starvation.
While he stresses that this is a worst-case scenario, Stocker says this “has happened at other times, when there’s been price collapses for events such as foot and mouth”.
Following the 2001 outbreak of the disease, millions of sheep were killed not because they were infected, but because there was no market for them.
Does Stocker think Chapman’s figure of nine million animals is realistic? “I wouldn’t want to be behind any unrealistic scare stories. But in a real worst-case scenario, if we had no trade, then we’re not just talking about ‘finished’ lambs. We’re talking about ewe flocks, breeding flocks, that farmers wouldn’t be able to afford to carry through. They would question whether they would want to continue, and in that case, there’s no market value, there’s nowhere for these animals to go.”
For now, Stocker remains optimistic: “My strong belief is that the industry would not sit around and let that happen, and the government would react and step in to avoid it happening.” Yet the government must act soon, he says. “The government should be thinking about putting measures in place now, to avoid any such collapse happening, rather than thinking about some sort of rescue package once things have gone wrong.”
Among sheep farmers there is, he says, “a lot of resignation that there is not much that people can do. All they can do is try and make their businesses leaner and meaner. I think as we get closer to talk of a no deal, there is some real concern.”
There is evidence, too, that some in government are planning for disaster. Stocker refers to the Welsh government investing in preparations to support farmers through the mental health problems, stress and the risk of suicide that could be brought about by the collapse of their export market. “It would be far better to find ways of avoiding that stress in the first place,” he says.
The cost of protecting Britain’s sheep farmers against “WTO rules” may be high, he adds, but when the associated costs of winding down an industry that has supported the British economy since the Middle Ages are factored in, “it would be peanuts in terms of the cost of this going wrong, and then the government having to come in with a rescue package afterwards”.