Does NI need a sheep scheme?

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​The new future agriculture policy for Northern Ireland (NI) includes the Beef Carbon Reduction Scheme (BCRS), started this year, and a Suckler Cow Scheme that is due to start in 2025.

Farmers will get a farm sustainability payment and will be able to be involved in a Farming with Nature Scheme. However, one commodity that has not been included in future support is sheep. A sheep scheme is required in NI, however due to WTO rules, only £50 million can be used for headage payments.

If you are a sheep only farm you will lose 17% of your Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) to a £50 million fund of money for a Protein Scheme, BCRS and Suckler Cow Scheme. Sheep farmers currently will not be able to regain 17% of their lost BPS unless they change their farming businesses to include protein crops or cattle. For many sheep farmers these options would not be viable. As a result of this, at the end of 2022 the UFU alongside other industry representatives including NSA, NIAPA, LMC and NIMEA, formed The Northern Ireland Sheep Industry Taskforce.

Development of NI sheep industry

A sheep scheme is required in NI. (Picture: Cliff Donaldson)A sheep scheme is required in NI. (Picture: Cliff Donaldson)
A sheep scheme is required in NI. (Picture: Cliff Donaldson)

The Sheep Industry Taskforce produced a report creating a vision for the development of the NI Sheep Industry. The report was presented at Stormont to DAERA at the start of 2023. Due to the absence of an Agriculture Minister at that time, DAERA was unable to make any progress on a future sheep scheme. However, we now have new DAERA Minister Andrew Muir and the Sheep Industry Taskforce will be highlighting this report to him.

The Sheep Industry Taskforce report was designed to reward farmers for carrying out activities that improved sheep health and welfare including an annual veterinary health plan. This will increase productivity and overall sustainability of farm businesses while also helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report suggested alongside a payment per ewe that there would be a capital investment grant to allow farmers to invest in infrastructure e.g. mobile dippers, sheep handling facilities etc. Also, information technology grants to support farmers in purchasing weigh crates and sheep handling equipment that will allow farmers to measure and record key performance indicators.

The report wanted to see an increase in knowledge transfer amongst farmers. The report suggested sheep farmers would have to do two - three of the following options: faecal egg count use, abortion vaccines, footrot vaccine, pregnancy scan, OPA scan and scab treatment. The report also wanted to improve genetics of sheep through use of performance recorded rams.

ROI

In the Republic of Ireland (ROI) sheep farmers have the Sheep Improvement Scheme which is currently €12/ewe but is increasing to €20/ewe. Farmers in ROI are required to carry out two welfare measures to qualify for payment.

These can include any of the following: Lameness control; Mineral supplementation of ewes post mating; Meal feeding lambs post weaning; Parasite control (faecal egg count); Management of pregnant ewes (scanning); Flystrike control ; Mineral supplementation of lambs pre-weaning.

Plus: Genotyped Ram Action

Sheep census

In the 2023 sheep census there were approximately two million sheep in NI including 973,718 breeding ewes. 38% of farmers in NI have sheep and the value of the sheep industry output in 2022 was £106 million. However, due to an increase in input costs and lower market return, NI sheep farmers have some of the lowest farming incomes.

A sheep scheme in NI is not only required to help improve health and welfare of sheep and provide environmental outcomes, but to help increase the sustainability of sheep businesses. By doing this we will maintain sheep farmers in NI and ensure that all land from lowland to uplands is grazed effectively by sheep to ensure habitat biodiversity is maintained while also sequestering carbon.

The UFU along with the NI Sheep Industry Taskforce will continue to lobby for a sheep scheme in NI to ensure the long-term sustainability of the NI sheep industry. Check out the NI Sheep Industry Taskforce report on www.ufuni.org under news, consultations, published March 2023.

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