The new-year has got off to a reasonably positive start. Liveweight prices have continued to rise over the past couple of weeks in spite of a week-on-week increase in lambs forward; deadweight prices have dropped back a bit but the recent adverse weather could impact on the number of lambs coming forward and help tighten supplies. All particularly good when one considers what the alternative might have been. Throughput in early 2021 has been about 9% down on the same period in 2020, due largely to many producers wanting to clear lambs at the end of last season as a result of Brexit uncertainty. In addition, New Zealand’s seemingly increased focus on markets in the North of Asia and the Middle East could impact on supplies coming into Europe, meaning supplies could remain relatively tight and prices buoyant. In the longer term the 4% drop in production forecast for 2021 should provide an added push to prices.

Higher prices will no doubt present some challenges at the retail level, probably slowing the increase in consumption that we saw during lockdown, and there have been some logistical challenges for EU exports. The British Meat Processors’ Association estimates that trade, particularly in mixed meat loads, has dropped by 50%, with some, in an attempt to speed up the process and avoid some of the red tape, looking to establish processing facilities in the EU. Sadly this will probably be at the expense of jobs in the UK. In comparison, however, to the British shellfish industry we are in a very much better situation. With a bit of luck, as (and when) the Covid-19 situation settles down, a reopening of the hospitality sector should provide a boost to demand, in just the same way that an increase in demand for takeaways (particularly curries and kebabs) during the various lockdown periods have helped support the lamb and sheep meat markets.

Yet another positive is the recent report from AHDB on consumer attitudes to farmers, with some 66% of survey respondents feeling positive about British agriculture, even reporting a high degree of trust in the industry’s environmental credentials, with just 15% considering that we have a negative impact on the environment.

We should, however, not be too self congratulatory with these results, which are tempered somewhat by the growing awareness amongst the general public of the many environmental issues that are impacted by farming activities, both globally and at home, with many sharing a real desire to see the farming sector contribute more towards further improvements. Sadly it is the red meat sector that has attracted considerable attention, particularly in relation to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; much of it is unfounded and driven by those with an alternative agenda, but that does not make it go away.

As I mentioned in last month’s article, there are issues within the ruminant sector, sheep included; ruminants by their very nature produce methane, unquestionably a powerful greenhouse gas, but all the focus seems to be on the level of emissions per se, ignoring the fact that it is a relatively short lived gas. Recent work by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has shown that feeding willow browse to sheep can reduce the output of both methane and urine ammonia; similar work in New Zealand in 2007 demonstrated a potential for a 20%-plus reduction in methane output. Developments in this sort of area could enable sheep to be a part of the solution and make a significant contribution to a net reduction in atmospheric methane concentrations.

I suspect that a significant number of sheep producers are currently very close to achieving carbon neutral, the target for the sector. Some are no doubt there; simply taking into consideration the contribution that trampled grass (forages), an unavoidable consequence of grazing, makes to soil’s organic matter brings the oft-quoted 10% contribution to carbon emissions down to a more realistic level of around 4%. Once some of the other erroneous assumptions made in relation to production systems are taken into consideration, our carbon contribution is reduced even further, in particular for those on permanent pasture or who are paddock grazing, grazing cover crops, keeping sheep as part of an arable rotation, practising mob grazing or have already embarked on more sustainable or regenerative systems etc. British sheep and red meat production cannot and should not be judged on global production systems and standards.

The sheep sector as a whole has been making, and is continuing to make, huge strides towards carbon neutrality and should be commended for its efforts. Sadly few people fully appreciate this situation, including those that one would reasonably expect to know better; people such as those responsible for formulating and drafting policy, where there does seem to be a singular lack of any joined-up thinking. Take for example the suggestion from government that we should have a carbon tax on a range of items including red meat. A significant part of the new environmental policy and ELMS is about promoting sustainable production systems; within this there is a growing awareness (not exactly rocket science) that livestock are an important, if not essential, part of the mix for most sustainable or regenerative agricultural systems. It may be the way our grandparents farmed, but when coupled with modern technology and better understanding of the biology and biochemistry of the processes involved, it is certainly not old fashioned.

The suggestion to tax red meat seems to be completely devoid of any logic. Why reward the efforts that sheep producers have made towards achieving carbon neutrality by penalising what they do? Why dismiss the potential contribution that sheep producers are able to make, by locking up carbon in organic matter, to the longer-term reduction in levels of atmospherics carbon? It simply does not make any sense; a carbon tax on lamb would just be another addition to production costs, reducing the competitiveness of British lamb at a time when we are, in theory, attempting to seek and develop new export markets. At worst we could see the opposite, with cheaper imports being sucked in from other countries not subject to the same taxes; solving our carbon problems by exporting them does not address the key issues, something at which we seem to excel.

The whole situation, particularly when considered alongside other recent proposals, stinks of policy being driven by an alternative agenda. An anti-meat agenda, quite possibly directed by unelected “advisers”, should not be driving future policies for our industry, particularly where those policies seek to diminish the potential contributions that sheep and other ruminant livestock can make towards providing good quality, sustainable and affordable food for the nation, managing and enhancing the environment and locking up carbon. It really is time that common sense and balance prevailed; the future of the sheep industry should not depend, in part, on the whims and fancies of No.10. We have had a reasonably good start to the year, so far; we need to make sure that others don’t spoil it.

By the time that this drops through producers’ letterboxes, many will either have commenced lambing or will be about to start; so here’s wishing you all well and hoping that things go smoothly and without too many problems. Lambing is a special time; it can also be quite a lonely and stressful one, often exacerbated by long days and even longer nights. It is a time of year when we all have the occasional problems; unfortunately, this year, opportunities to share those problems are somewhat diminished, due to lockdown restrictions. As a result, making opportunities to talk to each other is more important than ever. A simple phone call to enquire how things are going can make a lot of difference, even a text, but that doesn’t have quite the same impact. Make a bit of time to phone a friend. And for those who have already finished lambing, I hope that it all went well; we just need some kinder weather and some decent grass to get them moving on. Good luck!