New horizons

Writers Posted 03/02/21
A new year and time to look to new horizons.

Welcome to 2021, a new year and time to look to new horizons. We have finally managed to “get it done” and become an independent and sovereign country free from the shackles of the EU and its burdensome administration; fortunately, we managed to leave with a deal, which has secured (largely) the European market for our lamb and sheep meat, a very significant positive deal for the sheep sector.

As with any major change, the transition has not been without its issues, but considering the last-minute decision and the lack of time in which to adapt to the new systems that are now in place, we have managed quite well, although some hauliers would probably not agree. Whatever the timing, it was inevitable, with the UK (or most of it) now classified as being a third party trader, that there would be some teething issues. For the sheep sector one of the major concerns must be the hold-ups generated by veterinary certification problems at abattoirs, although even here we have been relatively fortunate, since lamb and sheep meat is not quite so time critical as fish and white meats. For the latter, delays at ports due to incomplete, inaccurate or missing paperwork for perishable products has cost some producers tens of thousands of pounds. But let’s not dwell on the problems; this is a time of new opportunities, of new horizons, a time to focus on the positives.

Now is a good time for producers to take stock and reassess their position. OK, we still have no clarity as to where access to support is going to take us in the next five or ten years, or what changes to legislation we will see. There will, no doubt, be some who take the decision to forgo continued support, but I suspect there is a significantly larger proportion who will adopt a rather more pragmatic approach.

The only clarity we do have is that the future direction of support measures will not be aimed at production but at the delivery of “public goods”, not a precisely defined term but a package that will undoubtedly include fresh environmental measures in the broadest sense of the word. Future measures will encompass the wider environment, the one in which we all have to live. Air and water quality will be part of this, as will carbon reduction, which will almost certainly be a dominant consideration. These are all spheres in which we, not just as sheep producers but as part of a wider farming community, can play a significant role; the way we manage our soils can make a significant contribution to improving all of these critical areas.

There are issues arising from these areas that affect us all, an obvious example being the negative impact that changes in weather patterns over the past few years have had on the sector; just how much these changes have been influenced by increased levels of CO2 is, to a degree, irrelevant. There are not many (at least this side of the Atlantic) who would deny that human activities have made some contribution to the changing weather conditions (or weather patterns) that have generated significant problems, not just for the sheep sector, but for farming in general. I have spoken to a number of sheep keepers recently who, in the light of quite significant challenges generated by a series of hot and dry summers, have reduced ewe numbers in an attempt to equate forage demands to tight supplies of grass over the summer grazing season, a situation that has been exacerbated by the effects of several very wet winters.

Having struggled to keep sufficient grass in front of ewes after two years of drought conditions and wet winters, I have certainly adjusted my ewe numbers. In addition, conversations with several scanners would seem to indicate some very variable and disappointing scanning results this season, due largely, I suspect, to inconsistencies in ewe body condition going to the tup, again probably as a result of tight grass supplies at a time when ewes should have been regaining condition post weaning.

As individual producers there is nothing we can do to influence the weather, but as an industry we are able to make a contribution to preventing further deterioration by supporting a cut in future CO2 emissions and possibly even helping to soak up existing CO2. The livestock sector, particularly ruminants, have become an easy target for some of our critics, most of whom have their own agenda to pursue; we have been vilified for our supposed contribution to CO2 and methane emissions and their contribution to global warming. Some claims are grossly exaggerated, but we cannot deny that we do make a contribution.

Methane is a product of rumen fermentation, fact; we can reduce levels of production by adjusting feeding regimes for our sheep, but we can’t stop them. Methane is, however, a bit of a red herring. It is a powerful greenhouse gas that does make a significant contribution to global warming, but it is short-lived and is broken down quite readily in the atmosphere. Methane produced today simply replaces that produced 10 years or so ago, and it has always been thus. Efforts to reduce methane from our sheep could, potentially, contribute to a net reduction in atmospheric methane, rather than preventing increases.

The situation is not quite the same with CO2. Since we began cultivating soil to grow crops, we have been releasing CO2 that had been locked up in the soil, perhaps for millennia, largely bound up in organic matter. It is here that we have the potential to provide the greatest impact; simply by adjusting our methods of production and adopting practices and systems that contribute to rebalancing soil health, by regenerating the soil biome and building up levels of organic matter, we can once again begin to sequester potentially huge quantities of CO2. A healthy and biologically active soil is able to produce healthy crops with much reduced levels of inputs, further reducing global warming by reducing the contribution made in both the manufacture and use of artificial fertilisers.

Since reading English Pastoral, I have been motivated to explore and research some of the wider aspects of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. I am not an advocate of organic sheep production, an area I have investigated several times over the years and that works well for some but does not suit my situation; conversely, the more I have read about and understood regenerative agriculture, the more convinced I am that it is one of the ways in which sheep production may be able to move forward and make progress in a manner that may be in tune with future support measures. If it isn’t, it certainly should be.

Sadly, there appears to be more positive work carried out in this direction in the USA, often considered to be the rat’s nest of intensification (in reality 21% of US farmland is under regenerative agricultural systems), and Canada, than in the UK. There are some UK producers who have picked up the baton and appear to be rapidly catching up with developments across the Atlantic, but I suspect that much of the potential for progress in the UK is inhibited by entrenched attitudes.

I am not saying that regenerative agriculture is the solution to all of our problems; likewise I would not be so bold as to advocate that it is what we should all be doing, but it does seem to tick quite a few boxes and may be at least part of the solution in mitigating the impact of some of the issues that we have faced and will continue to face. For anyone who is interested in exploring this further, Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown is an excellent read. He’s American but, hey ho, now we are an independent and sovereign country we shall be looking west across the Atlantic rather more.

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