We are all familiar with flocks of sheep grazing on the hills and moors. They were first introduced by the Romans and we are now by far the largest sheep and lamb producer in the EU with a quarter of the total flock. We have 14 million breeding ewes here in the UK which last year produced 17 million lambs.
However, lamb consumption in the UK is currently around 3.9kg per person per year, compared with 6.3kg in 1990. As well as being a decline in the eating of red meat, mutton has become a meat of the past and, while lamb continues to be a favourite in restaurants, home cooking of lamb is losing popularity.
The difference, of course, is exported, of which 90% goes to the EU, which amounts to approximately a third of our total lamb production.
So, with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a trade deal or with a bad one, there is a risk that our lamb export market will collapse potentially leaving us with a surplus of 2 million lambs.
On the plus side, environmentalists like George Monbiot maintain that our uplands are overgrazed by sheep, which has caused damage to the habitats which include upland heath and blanket bog.
The UK flock increased rapidly after the war, boosted by subsidies based on sheep numbers. So perhaps in 2021, we shall begin to see a return to pre-war numbers.
There is also the ‘by-product’ of wool to be considered. Sheep’s wool never stops growing and has to be sheared every year or they could die of heatstroke. They can become infested with maggots which bury into their skin. Wool is a planet-friendly fibre, natural, renewable and recyclable. Yet it costs more to shear a sheep that the fleece is worth. The hope is that innovative uses for wool can be found.
Of course, the farmers themselves need not worry because, in 2016, the Environment Secretary George Eustice promised farmers that they would have as much if not more support in the form of subsidies than they had received from the EU.