Covid-19 restrictions have really not had a major impact on what we do on a day-to-day basis. Sheep still need to be tended, routine tasks continue to be routine tasks and at a grass roots level, things go on with relative normality, particularly with the first lockdown commencing during lambing.

In reality the past year’s sheep trade was relatively kind to us; prices generally held up well throughout the season for finished lambs, culls and stores. It’s a pity about the wool trade, but there was nothing that we, either as individual producers or as a country, could do about it. One positive is that the drastic drop in wool prices has stimulated some thinking and initiatives into alternative uses for wool; all we need is some genuine support from Government, as part of their seemingly new green agenda, to further develop the uses of wool for insulation in all sorts of different situations, housing, cool chain, etc.

We also start the Covid-19 new year on a really positive note; the rollout of the first tranche of the Covid-19 vaccines has now commenced (mid-December) and although this is a process that does not herald an immediate return to normality, it is a significant and encouraging step in the right direction. Things will take a while to settle once again but there is a distinct light at the end of the tunnel. It is some of the smaller, oft-ignored aspects that will make most of the difference once vaccine rollout really begins to have an impact; those all so important opportunities for social interaction with other producers, the chance to share problems and catch up on current issues. Keeping sheep can be a lonely occupation; many shepherds will admit to spending more time and, quite possibly, having more conversations, with their sheep and dogs than with other people, particularly during busy times such as at lambing. The social function of the auction market is an area that is all too frequently overlooked; just that chance to catch up, even if only briefly, can make a huge difference to some. “It’s good to talk,” as they say, and mental health is as much an issue among sheep farmers as it is among the general populace; similarly shows and sales.

Being realistic, it is quite possible that we will be into another lambing before things really start to return to anything resembling normality, although I suspect that the new normal will not be quite the normal to which we have become accustomed. In addition to the pressures of an approaching lambing, there could be fresh challenges arising from the outcome of our final departure from the EU. Do remember to give a thought to fellow sheep producers, and maybe, if you have any concerns, a telephone call just to catch up on things and possibly more importantly, to make sure that they are OK; of necessity sheep keepers do tend to be a fairly pragmatic lot, but everyone deals with problems in a different way.

At the time of writing (14 December) there has still been no resolution to the issues surrounding our eventual departure from the EU at the end of the transition period on New Year’s Eve. The only certainty, at this point in time, is that whatever the outcome, it is inevitable that things will change. Whether that is a transformation or revolution is still very much uncertain, as is the magnitude and direction of that change; even less clear are the potential implications for what we do. I suspect that, even at the time of circulation, the full impact of adjustments at the turn of the year will still be largely undefined, undetermined and unclear.
One indicator of the desire by Government to change things is the DEFRA consultation document now in circulation on the “improvements” (my parenthesis) to animal welfare during transport. This appears originally to have been heralded as a precursor for legislation to ban live exports for slaughter and onward finishing, but appears to have morphed into a very much broader remit including adjustments to internal journeys and the conditions and duration of travel. Some of the proposals included within this consultation will, if agreed, have a significant and potentially damaging impact on what we do and how we transport our sheep, so it really is worth having a look at it and making your views known; the documents and response questionnaire may be found online, just search for DEFRA “Consultation on improvements to animal welfare in transport” December 2020.

In principle, live sheep exports are a legitimate part of our trade in sheep meat with mainland Europe (at the time of writing), although in reality sheep for slaughter are not a huge part of the total live export trade. Personally, I do have some minor reservations with regard to live exports, particularly where there is onward transit and extended journeys, but most of the sheep trade is for sheep going into abattoirs in the north of France, Belgium or Holland, abattoirs that, for sheep coming out of the South East, may frequently be accessed in less time than transport to a volume abattoir in the UK. I have no issues with that.

Putting exports to one side, the consultation appears to ignore the link between long journeys within the UK and the location of facilities for the slaughter and processing of lambs and cull sheep. George Eustice seems to have ruled out any Government support for a more equitable distribution of abattoir capacity across England and Wales and has made some singularly useless, bland, and unhelpful statements about the geographical distribution of UK abattoirs, ignoring the fact that distribution has nothing to do with capacity. This is not exactly rocket science but has been conveniently overlooked. The South East is home to a lot of sheep and has a number of abattoirs per se, but what it does not have is any volume capacity. A few small abattoirs in Kent and East Sussex, for example, have, in total, nowhere near sufficient capacity to cope with the volume of lambs coming out of Ashford market alone, thus imposing long journey times for sheep travelling to other areas to access that processing capacity. No review of livestock transport regulations can draw any meaningful conclusions without addressing the imbalance between areas of sheep production and the location of volume abattoir capacity. The apparent attempt to solve a perceived problem without first attempting to address the underlying issues is nonsensical.

Another aspect of the consultation proposals relating to transport and temperature is contained in paragraph 40, a section that I find quite alarming and which simply defies logic; I quote: “In the light of this, we are proposing that no livestock or horse journeys will be allowed to take place if the forecast external temperature for the journey is outside of a temperature range of 5°C to 30°C, unless the vehicle is able to regulate the internal temperature within a 5 to 30°C temperature range for the duration of the journey by means of a thermo-regulation system. This will apply to both short and long journeys.”

Following this logic, it will be impossible for most producers to legally transport sheep into market on a significant number of days over the winter period; even a cursory glance at average weather data clearly shows that between December and March mean daily minimum temperatures (for the 30 year average) were below 5°C and at 5°C for November and April; six months of the year when temperatures may present a problem with transporting sheep. This is plainly a nonsense, either whoever drafted this document has virtually no understanding of the realities of sheep keeping or it is a glaring error. Maybe it should be -5°C, although even this could present problems in some areas and in some years. It seems that it is perfectly reasonable for sheep to be outside in temperatures below 5°C, sometimes well below freezing (in 2018, for example, I and many others, had ewes lambing outside with no problems in temperatures of -14°C), but not to put them in a trailer and transport them – or is this a sign of things to come? If you are concerned (you should be), get online and make your views known; you have until the end of the month (well almost, 28 January 2021). Don’t leave it to someone else – get typing! And do have a happy and prosperous new year!