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The Ovine Scandal

The Haze-Dweller’s discourse on the economics of sheep farming. Thought you'd never ask.
We remember no doubt from our lessons at school that from the early part of the 18th century the poor old Scottish crofters were being driven from their homes to make way for sheep. The landowners – or those at least who now saw themselves as aristocratic landowners – could make plenty of money from sheep.
And so it was in England as in Scotland, there was money in sheep. Sheep could live on poor upland pastures and thus were a relatively low-cost source of meat. And their wool could be made into blankets and garments, and the woollen mills of certain parts of the country, for example Yorkshire and Gloucestershire, brought great prosperity to those areas. You couldn’t go far wrong with sheep.
Gradually, and accelerating following the Second World War, things changed. Sheep became less and less of a money-spinner. The reason for this was partly to do with changing food habits, partly changing dress habits, and predominantly the British farmer’s reluctance to move with the times.
In food two trends were occurring; people are eating less meat, but in particular less fresh meat. The Sunday joint, that used to be practically de rigueur, is now the dinner of a dying breed, much of the meat that is eaten now is in processed foods of one kind or another. This of itself need not be too much problem for farmers, as they can just as well supply Heinz as they can the butchering wholesalers, but the lamb that finds its way to the Heinz factory in Wigan comes not from the hills above Bolton, but from New Zealand, and the reason for this is that food-processing firms need a consistent supply of a consistent quality at a pre-known price; they need this so that they can keep the factory running and predict their prices and profits. This requires a co-ordinated and forward-looking effort on the part of farmers, and in Britain ‘forward-looking farmer’ is an oxymoron.
Although Britain has, on estimate, about a quarter of all the sheep in the EU, we import about one third of the sheep meat we consume, predominantly from New Zealand.
Similarly with dress: Australian sheep farmers bred sheep with finer wool, and no one these days wants to wear old-fashioned lumpy socks. The British farmers: they complain.
And they continue to complain; they say that if only the government would ban imports of all this foreign meat, they could begin to make a decent living again; whereas of course the reality is that if the British government told Heinz where it had to get its raw materials from, Heinz would very quickly up sticks to Poland, or Latvia, or somewhere.
It’s the fault of the supermarkets, say the farmers, if they didn’t depress prices by importing all this foreign meat! The government should do something about it. Yet if you go round almost any supermarket and take a look, you’ll see that nearly all the fresh meat is British and you will also see that the price of fresh meat, like-for-like, in the supermarket is very similar to what it is in your local butcher’s shop if you are fortunate enough to still have one. Restaurants and ready-meals, of course, are a different matter, they don't have to say where they source the meat. The Indian takeaway listing the country of origin of all its ingredients? Now come on, farmers!
It’s quite hard to get hold of statistics on sheep, as right at this moment they are not tagged and registered. They will be, there’s a government requirement that they should be, but the farmers are complaining about it (surely not!) and it has been postponed.
Since 2005, sheep in the UK are no longer subsidised, that is to say, a farmer receives no subsidy money for a sheep. Before 2005, the incentive not to change with the times was in the subsidy. Now, farmers are subsidised for maintaining the countryside, which for many farmers means no change, as they think they do that anyway, but probably over time the number of sheep in the country will decrease. The farmers will complain that Britain is exposing itself to food shortages in time of war or national economic hardship, and maybe that would be right, though exposing ourselves to high cost on a product that largely goes to waste seems a more pressing concern for the foreseeable future.
Initiatives such as seaweed-fed mutton reflects a step in the right direction. If farms these days are to be sustainable and profitable they either need to produce a high-quality specialised product or else they must do what they do especially efficiently and cost-effectively. In that respect they are no different from any other business. British farmers in general are fighting this to the bitter end, but unfortunately for them it will be their own bitter end that they are heading towards, it’s inevitable.
Seaweed-fed mutton will need a lot of marketing if it is to be anything other than a tiny niche. And it will struggle, unfortunately, against the appalling image of British farming generally, which needs a serious makeover. Not a job that I would like to take on (not that anyone would ask me anyway so that’s OK).
My prediction is that there is a future for British farming, but not run by indigenously British farmers. Farming has been particularly shielded from influence by immigrants, and has suffered as a result (one could say that we’ve all suffered). In some years hence I believe there will be an influx of dynamically-minded immigrants running British farms, and our farms will begin to flourish again. I’m not sure that I shall be still alive to witness it, but that is my optimistic and, I’m almost certain, realistic prediction.
But in the meantime, sheep farming in the UK is a national scandal, or should be, for we are a major producer that imports a third of what we consume and, presumably, chucks much of what we produce away – it’s difficult to find reliable figures, which of itself suggests something of a cover up. And as for the Green Party, do they not know about this? Or are they too busy being even woollier than the average sheep?
So how’s that for a discourse on sheep? You too can now bore people all evening by talking about sheep, as I have to be careful to try not to do too often. Especially if there are farmers in earshot.


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