THE Government is being advised to follow the example set by its Australian counterpart and recognise the importance of grazing sheep to conserving the environment.
In Australia, top-level environmental strategists have back-tracked in recent months to acknowledge the importance of sheep in conservation management and sustaining habitats for important species, the UK’s National Sheep Association (NSA) said.
It said that, although some UK environmental bodies have realised the importance of sheep to the landscape, some still support limited stocking numbers or a total ban on grazing ... something the NSA says will put biodiversity at risk.
Limiting stocking numbers would also create problems for farmers trying to run efficient and profitable businesses, and limit their efforts to provide food for a growing population. NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “For too long, overgrazing has been misunderstood, forcing stocking numbers to be cut too far and areas to suffer from the serious problem of undergrazing instead.
“Sheep are a central part of our landscape and environments.
“Preventing them grazing certain moor and hill land, where sheep have been an important part of the mix for many generations, creates far more problems than it solves.
“The majority of the UK’s biodiversity is farmland-dependent and it has evolved this way because of farming practices, such as sheep grazing, that has been practised for literally thousands of years.
“The NSA’s report on The complementary role of sheep in Less Favoured Areas highlights many of these problems and we will continue to work tirelessly to improve understanding of the situation and see sheep return in sensible numbers to many areas of the UK.”
The report looks at a host of issues the NSA said are helped by grazing sheep, from wildlife to habitat protection.
Mr Stocker pointed to Australia, where attitudes towards sheep farming had changed after a bird species virtually disappeared when sheep were removed from the landscape.
Over the last two decades, the Australian government and environmental groups bought more than 11,000 hectares of farmland in northern Victoria to stop sheep and other livestock grazing there.
But when the sheep disappeared, some species dropped dramatically, especially the endangered Plains Wander bird, which is similar in size and appearance to a quail.
Some plant species were also virtually removed because they could not complete with dominant and invasive grasses.