Since pre-history, sheep have been a significant part of the economic DNA of Britain. More than 2,000 years ago we traded tin, wheat and wool with the Phoenicians and later the Romans. That was even before the Romans decided to make a hostile takeover of Britain plc. The further north the Romans pushed into central Europe the greater the demand for good quality British wool to furnish the red cloaks of the Roman legionnaires; cloaks that served to keep them both warm and dry.
At least they appreciated the value of wool. Apart from a bit of a hiatus during the “Dark Ages”, the cross-Channel trade in British wool persisted and grew, forming a mainstay of the British economy throughout the middle ages. Only relatively lately has meat become the main focus of sheep production and a significant contributor to the UK economy worth, in 2019, £339.4 million, with an additional contribution of £24.9m from skins and £8.7m from offal, around £373m in total. Something of which we should all be proud.
As with any journey through time there will be key events that have had an influence, and for the sheep industry these have been many and varied. I think that it is fair to single out a few. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list of events that have made a significantly great contribution, some have a particular resonance to our current situation.
In the year 1290 the last wolf was killed in England (they were around a bit longer in Scotland). Flocks were able to grow and roam freely without fear of being predated on by wolves, thus making flock management and the life of shepherds somewhat easier. Now we have come full circle with an increasing level of pressure, from some groups, to reintroduce top predators including the lynx and wolves into the UK ecosystem. The fact that there have now been confirmed wolf sightings in Normandy (near Neufchatel en Bray, 8 April), just 25 to 30km from the Channel coast at Dieppe will only serve to encourage those advocating rewilding.
By the 14th century, the British sheep industry was thriving and sheep were valued for their wool, but there was still scope for considerable expansion. This scope was somewhat constrained by farming systems at the time, in particular the three-field system (for those who remember their agricultural history), which dominated in large parts of the country and which effectively confined sheep to common grazing around settlements, valued as mobile fertiliser spreaders as much as for their wool.
With flocks grazed communally there was very little control by individual flock owners over breeding and management. The opportunity for larger landowners to take greater control over their flocks arose with the arrival on British shores (at Weymouth) of the plague in 1348. The mortality rate was such that somewhere between 30% and 40% of the population succumbed to successive waves of the disease, many of whom would have been agricultural workers of various sorts. The subsequent shortage of labour resulted in a huge (and convenient) increase in areas of land being enclosed; this was land which previously was held in common and used for growing crops, the newly enclosed lands being laid down to grass for sheep. Wool was more profitable than arable crops and sheep keeping required a significantly smaller labour force. Unfortunately many of the smaller tenants and occupiers were dispossessed of their land to make way for the advancing tide of sheep.
To put this into a modern context, we do not as yet have any real understanding of the impact that the current disease issues will have on sheep production, impacts that will arise from changes within both the domestic and international markets for our outputs. Sadly I suspect that it will not lead to a similar growth in the sector as that which followed the 14th century plague.
Another major step forward for the sheep sector arose as a result of the first farmers to apply scientific principles to livestock breeding in the 18th century; people such as Robert Bakewell with his Leicester sheep and John Ellman with his Southdowns. Their work would, incidentally, have been meaningless without the enclosure of sheep grazing and the opportunities for the control over breeding that this enabled. These breeders laid the foundations for modern sheep breeding, foundations that I am sure will be essential, enhanced by the addition of new breeding technology such as genomics, in the future development of the sheep sector.
To come rather more up to date, the implementation of the European Communities Act 1972 resulted in the UK becoming a member of what was then the European Community on 1 January 1973.
This single act opened up a huge new market for British lamb; for 15 to 20 years prior to that the UK sheep industry had been in the doldrums. The prospects arising from the new market opportunities, however, stimulated a renewed interest in sheep production. Over a very few years the national flock increased in size and the newfound profitability within the sector attracted renewed interest, not only from farmers, but also from researchers and commercial companies. The new focus on sheep production gave rise to significant innovations within the sector; innovations in breeds, breeding, health, feeding, production systems, etc. As the EU markets grew, the industry developed and prospered. Now almost 40% of our domestic lamb production is exported, with around 95% of exports being purchased by other EU countries, French buyers alone accounting for approximately 50% of the trade – just as we are about to leave the EU.
At the beginning of 2021 we will, in all probability, leave the EU, and unless we are able to negotiate appropriate trade deals in the eight months between now and January, much of the lamb trade could disappear. Without trade deals being in place (eg a hard Brexit) the default position will be World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, a situation which potentially would give rise to trade tariffs being applied to UK exports to the EU; for lamb this would add approximately 48% to the cost of exports. This is a cost that would simply be unacceptable to EU markets; they would stop buying our lamb. A 35% drop in demand for UK lamb would result in a collapse in domestic market prices, a collapse to the point where the majority of sheep producers would struggle to make any sort of profit; many could be forced out of business. It would decimate the industry.
Within the sector we all hope that this situation never arises, but it is still a possibility and the attitude of the current administration towards farmers in general does not offer any encouragement. The refusal of government to support amendments to the Agriculture Bill, protecting UK welfare and environmental standards, their refusal to even contemplate any extension to the withdrawal period in spite of the current situation with Covid-19, and a lack of effective engagement and willingness to compromise (by both sides) in withdrawal negotiations does seem significantly to increase the risk of us stumbling to a point, at 11pm on 31 January 2021, where we simply drop off the edge and leave the EU with the default position of no deal. Not good for anyone on either side of the Channel.
Isn’t it interesting how cyclical historic events tend to be?