The National Sheep Association (NSA) has hit back at ‘misguided’ claims by environmentalists and conservationists that grazing sheep in the uplands does more harm than good in the UK’s most fragile areas.
In a new report to raise awareness and coincide with the association’s Sheep Event in Warwickshire on Wednesday, the NSA highlighted the tri-fold contribution of economic, environmental and societal benefits which sheep farming brings to the uplands.
The Complementary Role of Sheep in Upland and Hill Areas report also serves to pin point the ‘by-products’ of running sheep in these parts of the country.
Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive, said: “NSA has produced the report because this sector, that is so traditional yet still acts as a cornerstone of much of the modern UK sheep industry, continues to come under threat from many quarters.
“Much of this is due to misguided policy direction and a lack of understanding of the many ‘by products’ of upland sheep farming.
“These public goods go beyond its core agricultural outputs of food and wool; they include its foundation of fragile rural economies and communities, its creation and maintenance of landscapes and environments, and its contribution to tradition and heritage.”
Mr Stocker said these factors contributed to the country’s ecosystems and the public’s sense of enjoyment and well-being, yet it was rarely recognised or valued.
“Our aim is to convince decision makers of the unique contribution upland sheep farming provides and also to set some challenges to the industry itself by offering a strategic direction that should safeguard its future,” added Mr Stocker.
It came as a House of Lords debate on the effects of Brexit on agriculture highlighted comments made by the new Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom, in which she appeared to dismiss the role of livestock in the uplands.
In an interview with the Guardian before the referendum, she said farmers with ‘big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies’.
In 2007, Brexit campaigner Mrs Leadsom had also argued that farm subsidies should be abolished – a move which farm chiefs said could not only devastate food production and the environment, but could also be disastrous for vulnerable upland areas, particularly in Wales.
Lord Martin Thomas of Gresford spoke about the contribution made by agricultural production in Welsh upland areas, the fact 60,000 people were employed in the sector and the vast number of secondary businesses which were reliant on the industry.
He added: “Welsh family farms are not to be left to cultivate butterflies. They have a critical role to play in producing food to the highest standard.
“They are the custodians of the countryside. Their farms must never be laid to waste.”
Mr Stocker said it was crucial the uplands were not forgotten in Brexit discussions.