Public goods agenda seen as a threat but must be engaged, sheep farmers told

Upland sheep farmers are being warned to scrutinise their businesses now so they are ready to flourish when lifeline support payments are replaced by a system of “public money for public goods”.

Sheep farmers need to be looking outwards, said Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association. Picture by Tony Johnson.

MORE: Stay up to date with all the latest rural affairs news, views and features by joining our new Facebook groupPhil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said the Government must also acknowledge the environmental and wider public benefits that are already being delivered in the hills if the new farm support payments model is going to replace direct payments which upland sheep farmers rely upon more than any other sector.

The sheep boss will take part in a seminar about the Environmental Land Management Scheme at NSA North Sheep, a key industry event that will be held at New Hall Farm near Settle on Wednesday, June 5.

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Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, the sector leader said: “With the Environmental Land Management Scheme in mind, we need to get a message back to policy makers and Ministers that there is an awful lot of environmental good being delivered already that needs to be recognised in a new era of farm support.

Julia Aglionby, executive director for the Foundation for Common Land.

“There is a lot of really good work going on in the uplands that isn’t being recognised such as the wide scale management of habitats being created by traditional upland farming, for example, through the management of hay meadows for ground nesting birds in spring, and there is a lot of work being done with farms adopting sustainable grazing management for plant diversity.”

At the same time as making a “hard case” to politicians and the public about the support sheep farming deserves for what it is already doing, the industry must also take a look at itself, he said.

“Farmers will also need to think about additionality in terms of what more they can do to create new or better wildlife habitats, demonstrate carbon storage or optimise the condition of natural resources such as water and soil quality,” he said.

“Sheep farmers need to be looking outwards and NSA North Sheep offers a good opportunity to do that.

“The world is changing rapidly, there is new innovation and technology becoming available that will help increase profitability, and practical farmers do have the opportunity to influence things.

“North Sheep will provide the chance to talk to many people and organisations, understand what’s going on in terms of new research, technology and policy development, and to get their own views across.”

Julia Aglionby, executive director of the Foundation for Common Land, urged farmers to be more proactive to adjust to future policy direction, despite a lack of confidence in Whitehall departments.

Ms Aglionby, who will speak alongside Mr Stocker at the North Sheep seminar, said: “Farmers need to really examine where they are making money and where they aren’t. They need to closely examine what is the optimum number of sheep. They need to look at the public benefit agenda and think what they can do with that; take control of it in a way other groups have.

“At the moment, in sheep farming, people aren’t engaging in that agenda, they see it as a threat.”

She said 51 per cent of farmers had not received their 2018 advanced payments under the existing Environment Stewardship Scheme, breeding mistrust in the support payments model on which they rely.

Ms Aglionby said: “We need the Government to build farmers’ confidence that this new scheme is going to be workable, deliverable and people are going to be paid.”

The Government has guaranteed current levels of farm support until 2022, with the Environmental Land Management Scheme to be introduced after this time.

In order for sheep farmers to better understand how they can maximise opportunities under the new scheme, Mr Stocker believes there needs to be new ways of benchmarking upland sheep performance.

He said: “It is easy to apply research and science to things we have complete control of, such as in the intensive livestock sectors, but the sheep farming system is semi-natural and extensive and it is far more difficult to apply in the same way.

“Sheep farmers in the future will need to be technologically advanced and scientifically inquisitive to understand how and why their systems work so that they can measure its success.”

Mr Stocker said the long-term outlook for sheep farming is “really positive”, despite the lack of clarity over Brexit impacts. He said: “The UK is the third largest sheepmeat exporter in the world and we have the conditions and skills to produce a really good product. We are good at growing grass. Global consumption of sheepmeat is strong.

“We just need to make the most of it, get through any short-term turbulence and ensure we are properly rewarded through a new public goods model.”