Welcome to the New Year | South East Farmer

Welcome to the New Year

Writers Posted 07/01/22
We enter the new year on a relatively positive note, with all of the indicators pointing towards a continuation of the robust trade in sheep meat experienced in 2021 and with fingers crossed that they are correct.

In spite of a significant decrease in the volume of exports last year, there was strong domestic demand, due in no small part to many of our customers rediscovering proper home cooking during lockdown, sourcing quality ingredients and cooking meals from scratch. If you are looking for quality ingredients, what could be better than a nice bit of grass-fed, locally produced lamb? This, combined with the reopening of restaurants, certainly helped sustain domestic demand during last year and hopefully into 2022.

A strong domestic demand and tight supplies throughout 2021 gave rise to a much-welcomed and needed hike in prices, which finished the year some 20% above their position 12 months previously. The post-Covid-19 impact on labour availability at abattoirs may also have contributed to restrictions in supplies at a retail level. Buoyed by high prices for breeding sheep last autumn, some ewe lambs may have been drawn into the market, but I suspect that some producers have kept their options open and held back ewe lambs originally destined for slaughter in the hope that breeding stock prices will be as strong this autumn. Solid hogget prices this spring may still tempt some of these into the market. Even the global impact of Covid-19 has helped UK sheep producers; supplies of Australian and New Zealand lamb are down by some 4%, and enduring, Covid-19 related, problems within the shipping industry have given rise to a further contraction of supplies from the Antipodes.

Sadly, it’s not all positives, but that’s life; things do not look quite as bright on the other side of the equation as input prices rise. With ammonium nitrate rapidly approaching £500/tonne and urea significantly the wrong side of £550/tonne as we approached the end of 2021, I suspect that many sheep keepers will be reappraising their fertiliser use. Rather fortuitously we all have ready access to both the raw material and the facilities to substitute some of the fertiliser that we might otherwise purchase, something that may also tick some environmental and Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme boxes.

Of the air that surrounds us, 70% provides the raw material, completely free of charge. The facilities, in the form of a bit of legume seed, cost a little more but are still not expensive, I say legume quite deliberately. Clover is not the only nitrogen fixer; other legumes are available. There is an increasing abundance of alternatives that all do very much the same job; take a look at any good seed catalogue to see what is available for almost any situation. Legumes have, as additional bonuses, the capacity to improve soil health (ticking more boxes) and provide a supply of good quality, relatively high protein feed, reducing the demand for purchased feed (still more boxes).
Many people have lost their lives to Covid-19, a number of sheep keepers amongst them. This is something I know we all lament, but without wishing to diminish the personal tragedies, the impact on the wider sheep sector has not been as bad as it may have been. We have fared (relatively) lightly; having sheep in need of attention exempted producers from many of the movement restrictions imposed in the first and subsequent “lockdowns” and in general we were able to carry on as ‘normal’. But sheep farming can be a lonely and isolating business at the best of times, a factor that was brought into sharper focus with restrictions on the access to auction markets and other opportunities for face-to-face social interaction. This has no doubt been difficult for some, depriving many of those important opportunities just to catch up with other producers and see how their friends and colleagues are faring.

Auction marts provide an often overlooked, useful social function, possibly not so much in the South East as in some of the more isolated areas of the country; I am sure that the opportunities they provide for social interactions make a valuable contribution to the mental health of many producers; certainly not an issue that many are willing to discuss or admit to, but simply having the opportunity to share a problem often makes things just a little easier. Farmers in general, and livestock keepers in particular, tend to bear loneliness and isolation with considerable tolerance and stoicism, but there are times when we all, as sheep producers, would benefit from being a little less forbearing and long-suffering.

I’m sure that there have been many shepherds that have conversed almost as much with their dogs over the past couple of years as they have with other people, immediate family excepted, of course. We are fortunate in having intelligent and thinking working dogs for company as we go about our daily routines. But for the whims of Edward I, it is quite possible that we would have livestock guard dogs to accompany us, and I suspect that they would not provide quite such good companionship.

Had Edward in 1281 not commissioned Peter Corbett to hunt down and eradicate wolves from England, we may by now have been working in a completely different sheep industry and we almost certainly would have had different canine companions. Corbett and his bands of hunters cleared the country of the last major predator by the end of the 13th century, although some probably remained in the wilds of northern England a while longer and considerably longer north of the border. This action effectively removed the need to guard flocks against animal predators, leaving the shepherds of the time to focus their attention on breeding dogs for herding and droving. The ancient origins of the dogs of the time, based almost certainly on a combination of droving and guard dogs brought to Britain by the Romans, a Spitz type herding dog introduced some eight to nine hundred years later and a few local dog strains added to the mix, led to the development of a range of herding and droving dogs. These hard-working dogs would have served shepherds and drovers for hundreds of years. A Dr John Caius, in his 1570 treatise on dogs, describes herding dogs and a manner of working that would be familiar with many shepherds today. It was a long process that eventually resulted in the development of the Border Collie that we know today (other shepherding dogs are available).

The modern Border Collie largely owes its origins to a dog by the name of Hemp; bred in Northumberland in 1893 out of a pairing of black and tan dog Jack and a black and white bitch called Meg. A good, strong and very skilled working dog, Hemp was very popular and much in demand as a sire within the region, producing quite a number of litters. The Border in the name arose from the border regions of England and Scotland and the Collie from a long-used term for working dogs north of the border; their popularity rapidly spread within the area and they quickly achieved a national and international reputation.

As average flock size has increased over the past few decades, so has the reliance of shepherds on their dogs. Many shepherds simply could not operate effectively without their working dogs being part of the team. Border Collies are tough, high-drive, sometimes obsessive and hard-working dogs; sadly, this possibly contributes towards one of their weaknesses, the incidence of idiopathic epilepsy (IE) within the breed. A disorder with no known cause (idiopathic), IE in dogs has an incidence of 0.6% to 0.7% across all breeds, with some breeds, including Border Collies, being rather more predisposed than others.

Regrettably we recently lost our last collie to IE. She was just over four years old when she had her first seizure, having shown no signs of the disorder beforehand. In spite of ever-increasing tiers of medication, her seizures became progressively more difficult to control, resulting eventually in her going into status epilepticus, effectively a continuous seizure that resulted in her sad demise.

As is often the case, IE is one of those disorders that few people know anything about. After 50 years with collies we had never come across, or even heard of it, before. It is only when faced with the problem that one suddenly begins to discover other people who have experienced the same issues; over the past year or so I have come across a significant number of shepherds who have been through the same experience, but it’s a bit like sheep scab, nobody wants admit to it or talk about it, which really is unfortunate, particularly as there is a strong possibility that there is a genetic link to the disorder.

We were lucky in getting our collie onto the Royal Veterinary College (RVC)’s Big Brainy Border Collie Study; not that it was able to help her, but at least she made some small contribution to a study leading to a better understanding of the disorder. The RVC is a world leader in the study of IE, and although the Big Brainy Border Collie Study has finished, its work goes on with the RESET (Reducing canine Epileptic Seizures and improving Emotional state with behavioural Therapies) trial, a study that aims, hopefully, to develop therapies to reduce the impact of IE on both dogs and their owners. The RVC is recruiting owners and dogs for this study, seeking dogs that have been diagnosed with IE aged between one and 10 years of age. Taking part is relatively easy and not at all challenging, but simply involves keeping seizure and behaviour diaries for six months, two video calls and following advice for three months (in either a six- or nine-month period). All participation is carried out remotely. Taking part will certainly not cure your dog but will help to develop a greater understanding of this horrible disorder and may just help develop strategies and therapies to make life a little easier for both dogs and owners, both now and in the future; it’s your opportunity to contribute.

Further information about the trial, including what is involved and more detailed eligibility criteria, can be found at https://rvc.uk.com/canine-epilepsy-behaviour-therapy-trial Questions can be emailed to epilepsyreset@rvc.ac.uk

One final note, for anyone who may get involved in any ‘discussion’ of a meat versus vegetable diet, here is a link to a balanced piece, by a US nutritionist, that may provide some useful defence of our sheep industry against some of the myths and mis-information: www.agriland.co.uk/farming-news/red-meat-a-scapegoat-for-health-and-climate-change-concerns-rodgers/

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