The British Sheep Dairying Association (BSDA) has voiced its concerns about the future viability of member businesses with processors cancelling sheep milk orders as a result of the spreading virus.
With an estimated 30,000 milking sheep across the UK, sheep dairy farmers have been severely affected by the Covid-19 lockdown on the food service sector, with no outlet for their produce.
Matt van der Borgh, chairman of BDSA, said: “Sheep milk is an artisan industry with most of the milk used in cheese and yoghurts.
“The lockdown has forced the closure of restaurants, pubs, farm shops, deli counters and markets, the mainstays of sheep milk product sales.
“It is extremely concerning as sheep milk processors have ceased production as a result of the uncertainty, and the inability to take our product to markets has sent the industry into shock. I only hope we can survive it.”
Simon Stott, co-founder of Sheep Milk UK, said its members were being hit ‘hard from every angle’, with some farmers being told by processors to dry ewes off by the end of the month to avoid milk wastage.
He said: “97 per cent of our product goes into mainstream supermarket delis so the retailers’ decision to close these counters has hit us very hard. However, we were not given the option to change to pre-pack cheeses for supermarket chiller cabinet.”
“Our farmers now have to make the difficult decision to either downscale or dry off since they will not be getting paid for any milk produced. At least with cow milks, there is a price, whereas sheep milk does not have that luxury.”
Matthew Sharpe, a sheep farmer from Lancashire who has milked ewes for the past ten years, said he has had to kill 30 per cent of his flock already to avoid potential welfare issues involved with drying ewes off.
He said: “The situation is heart-breaking and demonstrates just how vulnerable niche specialist markets are.
“Despite spending huge sums of money on infrastructure to meet Governments’ ambition for ‘specialist’ products, I find their lack of protection available for niche produce supply chains extremely frustrating. The situation will see some sheep dairy farmers go out of business and not returning post Covid-19.”
Mr van der Borgh added while sheep dairy farmers are a resourceful and supportive bunch, failure to ’weather this storm’ could see the industry ’lose many more farmers and production capacity going forward’ affecting their ability to compete on the world stage.
The BSDA has spent the past four years working on a plan to powder excess milk during times of higher production to create a high value commodity for export to global markets, like China where demand is high.
With the industry about to enter its busiest time for sheep milk production, Mr van der Borgh highlighted it is an ‘ideal time for powdering milk’.
Mr van der Borgh said: “We have everything in place to begin powdering next week to meet the growing market demand. However we cannot raise the funds due to the disruption Covid-19 has had on our regular domestic markets and payments, and have been unable to secure any intervention money from Defra as of yet.”
The lack of a 'suitable powdering plant' within the UK, meaning the milk would need to be exported to Ireland for spray drying, has added an additional problem.
Mr Stott said: “This raises another issue for the industry as we cannot get the milk onto the ferry due to Covid-19 restrictions. We have also heard reports of powdering facilities across the world shut down to limit the spread of the virus.”