Prince’s Countryside Fund grant to boost diversity

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Important work to promote the wide-ranging diversity of sheep meat in the UK is set to receive a boost, thanks to a grant from the Prince’s Countryside Fund.

The National Sheep Association (NSA), working in partnership with others, is delighted to receive the additional funding to explore consumption opportunities for UK heritage sheep breeds connected to landscapes and specific products.

The study will look at the demand potential and ways of increasing the availability of products from heritage breeds, particularly opportunities for hogget and mutton.

The grant, to be added to funds raised by 18 other organisations, will enable a feasibility study to go ahead.

Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, says: “This is a welcome step forward for our sheep sector at a time of considerable uncertainty. Whilst standard lamb products have rightly been the main focus of national industry promotion, and will continue to be so, there is no reason why the huge diversity of sheep meat available in the UK should not be celebrated and supported in the marketplace as it is with wine, beer, cheese and many other foodstuffs.”

More than 60 breeds of UK native sheep have developed since the first domestic animal arrived from the continent some 6,000 years ago. Many can be traced back thousands of years and most have adapted in line with developments in climate, landscape, soil and forage type.

Phil adds: “The populations of many of our UK native sheep breeds have been falling alarmingly. We have a priceless asset in our UK sheep gene pool, the traits of some we are just starting to understand. These native sheep and the traditional farming systems they belong to are too valuable to be protected by agri-environment schemes alone and there must be an opportunity to create differentiation in our sheepmeat market.

“With commercial and environmental pressures causing some farmers to move away from traditional sheep farming methods and breeds, alongside uncertainties surrounding Brexit, our sheep industry would do well to look at opportunities to win back market share and add value - even if we are initially talking of niche volumes.”