Sheep sector is very exposed

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Brexit could provide a double whammy for the sheep industry in Northern Ireland.

A combination of a hard border, which could hit the movement of lambs south, and the introduction of levies on sheep meat exports to France would have a very negative impact on the returns received by local flock owners.

That’s the worst case scenario. On the other hand, a reasonable Brexit trade deal in tandem with a stronger focus on environment-related support measures post 2022 could see the sheep sector look forward to a very healthy future.

Trade issues and the evolution of the Brexit talks will impact very strongly on the prospects of the sheep industry, more so than would be the case with any other farm sector.

Almost half a million lambs leave Northern Ireland on the hoof for processing south of the border on an annual basis. In overall terms, the UK is a net exporter of sheep meat. So any Brexit deal that serves to make markets on mainland Europe less attractive really is a bad news story for the sheep industry as a whole.

It should also be pointed out that the sheep sector did extremely well out of the last Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform package. The agreement to move in the direction of an area-based support system suited flock owners, particularly those upland producers who run relative small numbers of ewes over large acreages.

It’s, obviously, important for the sector to maintain these gains once London starts setting agricultural policy for the UK.

But, irrespective of all these issues, it is important that a sustainable sheep sector is maintained here in Northern Ireland. Breeding ewe flocks are the backbone of our upland communities while lowland sheep enterprises complement most beef production systems.

Sheep output also makes an important contribution to Northern Ireland’s red meat processing sector.

From a marketing point of view, sheep tick all the boxes. The industry is predominantly grass base, giving it a very natural and wholesome image.

There is also scope to expand the sector, both in terms of improving efficiency levels and growing ewe numbers.

But all of this is predicated on getting a Brexit deal that meets the real needs of farmers and processors.