It is unacceptable for the anti-farming lobby to continue suggesting sheep in the uplands are to blame for any environmental, access or biodiversity issue that arises, says the National Sheep Association (NSA), referring specifically to the recent floods being used as an opportunity to criticise the sheep farming community.
Chief executive Phil Stocker said: “The suggestion that our uplands should be used to hold and store water and that sheep farming not only prevents this but makes the situation worse is unfounded and irresponsible.
“The anti-farming lobby conveniently chooses not to mention that many of our lowland drainage systems are centuries old and that our wildlife has evolved in line with the farming and land practices over this period.
“They ignore the fact that many of these drainage systems have fallen into disrepair – often on purpose with the aim of creating habitat museums. They also ignore the fact that so much of our land area is concreted with no water-holding management.
“Global needs are about using our natural capital wisely to feed a growing population, using fewer resources in doing so and improving our environment at the same time.
“Times change and we are disadvantaged by often only seeing with one’s own lifetime.
“It was only six or seven years ago that our uplands were far more industrious than they are now, yet in this era we seem to be constantly trying to make parks and museums of them instead.
“Of course there is no one-size-fits-all solutions – we need to protect the carbon stored in our peat-lands, we need trees, we need to manage our water far more carefully – but we also need to feed ourselves, protect our agricultural diversity and consider people and rural communities in all of this.”
The NSA promotes the message that the uplands (less favoured areas) offer a huge amount to our environment, food production, heritage and rural communities:
It believes that much of what the public value about the countryside, and enjoy when they visit or move to rural areas, has been created by farming activity over many years.
Maintaining and modernising traditional sheep farming business in the hills and uplands contributes substantially to food production and viable successful rural communities, and makes a positive input to safeguarding the rural population.
There is a strong symbiotic relationship between a healthy, successful rural population in the remote hill and upland areas of UK and a thriving, viable sheep sector.
Successful upland farming businesses provide soil fertility, carbon sequestration, the production of nutritious red meat with minimum inputs and natural and sustainably produced fibre (wool), says the NSA.
Areas grazed by sheep also encourage biodiversity for animal, bird and plant life.
Integration of trees in the uplands can provide benefits to sheep farming businesses (such as by providing shelter belts) rather than simply taking large areas of land away from food production.
Sheep enable the herbage on peat to be grazed safely, thus ensuring that wild fires are kept to a minimum and that the peat deposits continue to grow.
The NSA concluded that hill sheep production was at the very beginning of a huge multiplier effect which not only provides employment for businesses upstream and downstream (farm service providers and farmers buying livestock for lowland farms) but also products for the food retail sector and high-fashion clothing, interiors, upholstery and carpets.