Sheep industry can look forward to a bright future

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The sheep industry is one step ahead of all the other livestock sectors, when it comes to coping with whatever cross-border trade arrangements are put in place post-Brexit, according to Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) deputy president Victor Chestnutt.

“The commitment to an electronic tagging system for ewes and lambs should ensure the minimal level of disruption when it comes to the future cross-border movement of lambs, irrespective of what final Brexit deal London and Brussels come up with,” he said.

Chestnutt spoke at the recent Efficient Lamb Production Conference, held at CAFRE’s Greenmount campus. He admitted that the sheep industry needed to have the right Brexit trade deal secure on its behalf, if exports to countries such as the Republic of Ireland and France are to be maintained.

“It will require skilled negotiations to ensure this end point is arrived at,” he explained.

Chestnutt added that Northern Ireland needs a robust sheep industry, irrespective of the Brexit outcome.

“We have seen a significant growth in ewe numbers over recent years,” he said.

“And this momentum must be maintained. Sheep are at the very heart of our upland farming systems. They are, fundamentally, responsible, for creating the rural landscapes that make Northern Ireland so unique.

“I am encouraged by the commitment of Michael Gove, the DEFRA Secretary, to push for future support measures that place a stronger focus on environmental protection.

“The sheep sector will benefit accordingly, once these policies are rolled out.”

Richard Brown, from the GIRA Food Consultancy, also spoke at the conference. He said that the global prospects for sheep are extremely positive.

“China has become a real player in the market over the past 10 years or so with demand and prices increasing in equal measure.

“These developments have led to that country becoming a major importer of sheep meat with Australia and New Zealand being the main beneficiaries of this fast evolving market trend.”

Brown added: “Demand for sheep meat in China looks set to grow.

“Other important markets for lamb include the Middle East and North Africa. Here in the EU there is an age differential, regarding sheep meat consumption patterns. Older consumers continue to purchase the meat.

“However, younger people are not switched on to lamb, given its perceived lack of convenience.”

The GIRA representative confirmed that the continuing growth in the world’s population will help to consistently boost meat consumption levels across the board over the coming years.

“Sheep meat represents a niche product, in an international context, with global consumption expected to reach 12 million tonnes by 2021.

“This represents the size of the beef industry in the United States or, put another way, this level of output constitutes the envisaged growth in global poultry meat consumption that we can expect to see realised between now and 2021.”

However, Brown also believes that Brexit will cause no end of problems for the sheep sector in the UK.

“A hard Brexit represents the worst of all worlds,” he said. “This will, effectively, put an end to sheep meat exports from the UK to France. And the impact that such a development could have on farmgate prices is immense.”

On the upside, Brown believes there is now a unique opportunity to effectively market sheep meat in the UK.

“Australia has committed to a very proactive lamb promotion campaign on its home market,” he said.

“And this is paying a strong dividend. I see no reason why a similar approach cannot be taken here in the UK, particularly where the targeting of young people are concerned.”

He concluded: “Sheep production must be made sustainable. And here in the UK this means delivering realistic prices back to farmers.

“Looking to the future, I am deeply concerned regarding the current research now taking place into the development of new protein sources that constitute non-meat alternatives for consumers.

“The likes of the Bill and Belinda Gates’ Foundation is very proactive in supporting work of this nature.

“And this is another reason why the sheep sector must be extremely proactive in marketing its wares.”