The Brexit threats to sheep farmers, who provide environmental benefits as well as food, have been woefully underestimated and Ministers need to ensure they are not collateral damage, says Julie Girling, South West MEP.
To a frustrated public, our ongoing extrication from the European Union is regarded as a mixture of complex technocracy, realpolitik, threat and counter-threat.
It was foreseeable that the unpicking of a 40-year relationship – decided by a single vote on one day in June 2017 – would cause this chaotic scene and fuel the growing animus within our society.
The description a given, and the fraught negotiations likely to become more fractious as we approach 2019, I have found it useful to reduce the general complications of leaving to specific examples.
The Duchy College recently published a report regarding the value of the sheep industry, an area of particular concern in the Brexit process, particularly to a representative of the South West.
Of all the sheep farming in England, the South West accounts for 21 per cent or 7,400 farms, and produces £207m of meat, £2.2m of wool, 7,000 direct jobs and £60m of supply chain employment.
These figures are exponentially increased for the North East, which accounts for 27 per cent of England’s sheep production.
Commerce and food production are not the full story: the environmental benefits of sheep production should not be underestimated acting as a significant carbon sink over the country.
The contribution of sheep farming to the environment is significant in both the delivery of standards and the associated financial contribution the UK economy, particularly the use of very marginal land.
Given the scale, costs and benefits of sheep farming, the risks from Brexit have been woefully underestimated.
Data suggests the average Less Favoured Area grazing farm makes an Agricultural Corporate Income loss of £34,969.
The Basic Payment Scheme and agri-environment payments make up close to 173 per cent net of the total farm business income.
This dependence puts the industry in a very vulnerable position post-Brexit, and that is before the impact of export tariffs is considered.
An Oxfam-funded report recently found one in four farming families already lived in poverty and I do not believe that the 52 per cent who voted leave in the South West wanted to see this problem compounded.
The partial or complete removal of direct European subsidies would threaten the entire viability of English sheep farming, and would be unlikely to find an alternative in an increasingly volatile world trade situation.
The US President has already made agriculture a central plank of any future trade agreements, even going so far as to threaten Canadian producers with tariffs; a new global free trading Britain might have to be ready to abandon significant areas of hitherto subsidised industry.
Farmers deserve a clear direction from Defra, the country requires secure food sources and everyone is justified in asking: ‘is the Government in capable of handling the Brexit negotiations and making sure farmers are not collateral damage?’