Sheep sector at huge risk from hard Brexit

The sheep industry may need to focus more on growing and protecting its UK market.
The sheep industry may need to focus more on growing and protecting its UK market.

The National Sheep Association (NSA) is warning that the Government’s decision to pursue ‘hard Brexit’ presents a huge risk to the UK sheep industry.

This is due to the likely combination of disruption to existing trade structures, the reliance of the meat processing sector on migrant labour, and competition from free trade deals.

Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive, said: “It was inevitable the EU referendum result would mean that our existing trade structures would face disruption, but NSA has consistently been of the view that ongoing tariff-free access to the EU market was essential to avoid disruption and price volatility.

“We made it clear we wanted to remain in the single market, in the knowledge too that our industry relies heavily on migrant labour.

“Last week’s announcement by Prime Minister Theresa May presents a huge risk to the UK sheep industry when she talks of the ‘freest possible trade’ but very clearly outside of the single market.

“This suggests the acceptance of a level of tariffs, the result of which will be industry paying for any market access it can get to work economically.

“This is a continuation of passing costs back to industry within a free market economy and is an approach that clashes with our current policy of the provision of plentiful food on shop shelves at competitively low prices.”

NSA highlights the sheep sector as one at particular risk, as up to 40% of UK lamb production is exported each year, with 96% of that going into the EU single market.

Mr Stocker added: “NSA would like to once again remind Ministers and policy makers that sheep farming is an essential primary industry that contributes positively to food production, environmental and landscape management, provides the foundation for much of our farmland ecology, and supports many rural communities and economies.

“Tariffs placed on sheep meat exports into the EU would dramatically reduce our competitiveness and the volumes sold there.

“The large-scale processing end of our industry, which has been encouraged by policy direction and market drivers and which drives much of our export volume, is massively reliant on migrant labour and has little hope of filling that labour demand effectively with the UK labour force.

“We have repeatedly highlighted the value of our industry and said clearly what we need to continue to thrive into the future.

“We understand we have to leave the negotiators to negotiate and that they have to set out a starting position – but it appears that the starting position is to say we want it all and refuse to consider any plan B.

“Unlike during the referendum campaign, hopefully plan B is in the drawer – because if it isn’t the cliff edge looms in terms of how we currently operate.

“Despite calls that we want Britain to be a major global player, our sheep industry may need to consider turning away from such big aspirations and focus far more on growing and protecting our domestic UK market.

That’s not the current model and would require substantial restructuring of the industry at all levels, entirely changing the direction that has been invested in so heavily for a long time.”