NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said introducing sheep is good for both arable and sheep farmers.
Sheep had been considered ‘highly useful’ on arable farms 50 years ago but had disappeared from arable farms due to artificial fertilisers, herbicides and plant protection products and the ‘hassle’ of keeping livestock.
But Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association (NSA) chief executive, said the ‘tide seemed to be turning’ and sheep were returning to arable farms.
Launching its ’the Benefits of Sheep in Arable Rotations’ report at the Cereals event, Mr Stocker said it could benefit the environment, soil health and help new entrants into the industry.
It could also offer a ’real chance’ to tackle blackgrass.
“Reduction in yield reduces profitability, while well-run sheep enterprises can generate returns whilst building soil fertility at the same time,” he said.
Suffolk farmer John Pawsey introduced sheep to boost soil fertility and has participated in a two-year trial with the Organic Research Centre to see whether grazing sheep in early spring can control blackgrass.
In the early sown crop, the density of blackgrass heads was nearly 20 per cent lower in the grazed plots. Differences in the normal sown plots, however, were not significant.
He said he introduced sheep to the rotation to extend fertility-building leys from 18 months to 24 months.
“I felt sheep would fit in well to graze the extra leys, rather than mowing and incorporating them into the soil pre-cropping. Green manures planted after harvesting some of the crops are also used for over-wintered sheep grazing.
“Long term, we hope to see increased soil fertility, less weeds and healthier crops. The leys also provide additional income from sales of finished lambs.”
In short term situations, replacing a badly infested crop with a catch crop can be grazed off with sheep. What is left can be completely sprayed off before a more competitive crop is drilled to ‘smother’ regrowth. Longer term foraging could also help where seed burdens were particularly high.
“Environmentalists and policy makers have long called for a return to mixed farming – crops, grassland and livestock, which together support increases in small mammals, pollinators and farmland birds," Mr Stocker said.
Tim White at Sheep Improved Genetics said sheep could potentially help deal with blackgrass and help farmers with their greening and environmental commitments.
He said he had been 'quite amazed' by the reaction at Cereals from arable farmers.
"The market has changed, arable farmers are realising there is a need for these things."
Mr White added it could help introduce 'young blood' into the sector.
Young sheep farmers could introduce a flock to the land if the arable farmer did not want to deal with the 'hassle' of keeping livestock and this would be appealing to new entrants who could not afford to purchase their own land.
Aberdeenshire sheep farmer Michael Ritch introduced sheep onto his family farm which allowed him to expand the business and work fulltime alongside his father and grandfather.
“The sheep manage the land over the winter without poaching it and keep down the docks. Having a grass rotation has definitely improved the land for following crops, and having the sheep has motivated us to improve our management, which has rewarded us with greater yields and performance of grass,” he said.
“We now use less fertiliser and less herbicides, so our input costs for the whole farm have been reduced.”
While there were uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the UK’s sheep sector’s trade with the EU, Mr Stocker highlighted opportunities in trade worldwide as well as with specialised markets for wool.
Increasing UK demand for locally produced products has helped create a new market for wool and Mr Stocker said this could be a significant market for smaller scale farmers.
“We are starting to see some sheep are being kept for wool and the meat is almost a by-product,” he said.
He added farmers needed to look past the immediate profitability of the sheep enterprise on its own and look at the benefits to the whole farm.