BEN GOLDSMITH: Sheep are fleecing our natural environment

BEN GOLDSMITH: Sheep are fleecing our natural environment – it’s time to shear them of their subsidies

  • Read more: Fury as former Defra advisor says sheep ‘have to go’

We need to talk about sheep.

The unavoidable truth is that sheep are the principal obstacle standing in the way of meaningful nature recovery in Britain’s national parks and other agriculturally marginal landscapes.

There is no getting around it. The sheep have got to go.

Britain’s uplands, once comprised of extensive wood pastures, and temperate rainforests closer to the coast, have been cleared to make way for sheep. The environmental cost has been catastrophic.

Tens of millions of sheep have almost entirely stripped the hills and valleys of their green mantle. Apart from in small pockets, trees, scrub, wildflowers, and birdsong are largely absent from our uplands. All you find are sheep. Go and visit almost any of our national parks and you’ll see for yourself.

Sheep are the principal obstacle standing in the way of meaningful nature recovery in Britain’s national parks and other agriculturally marginal landscapes, writes Ben Goldsmith. [File image]

Sheep are susceptible to a range of parasitic infestations and consequently need to be dipped regularly in virulent chemical pesticides such as clikzin, which seeps into the natural environment poisoning the soil, and the invertebrates on which the whole food chain depends. These treatments render sheep so toxic that even maggots are unable to consume them if they happen to die on the hillside, which they often do.

It’s not just wildlife that loses out; sheep have a brutal impact on the hydrology of our landscapes. By compacting the soil and expunging vegetation, the animals create bare hillsides which are simply unable to collect and store rainfall, making soil erosion, flash flooding, and seasonal drought far more frequent and more severe, costing the country billions each year.

Sheep are not native to Britain. They come from the arid hills of Asia Minor. Sheep suffer terribly in Britain, soaked through as they stand exposed out in the rain on our windy, wet hillsides. Their feet have a tendency of rotting in our perpetually sodden ground. The fact that even English acorns are toxic to sheep says it all.

And, surprisingly, Britons don’t eat much lamb or mutton. There are, however, plenty of people who argue passionately that sheep are an important component of our national food security. This is mostly nonsense. Sheep tend to be raised on our less productive land, in areas not suitable to growing crops. There’s strong evidence to suggest that, if you take into account winter feed which must be brought in from elsewhere, and the negative hydrological impact on more productive farming further down our catchments, upland sheep farming is likely to be net negative in terms of actual food production.

Britain’s uplands, once comprised of extensive wood pastures, and temperate rainforests closer to the coast, have been cleared to make way for sheep. The environmental cost has been catastrophic. [File image] 

Most sheep farming is hopelessly non-viable too in economic terms, unable to provide a decent living to hard-working sheep-farming families. As the average age of sheep farmers creeps ever higher, their take-home income creeps ever lower. In sheep farming, there are now no winners, only losers.

In landscapes dominated by sheep, much of which fall within our national parks, the decline of nature has gone hand in hand with economic and social decline.

READ MORE: Fury as former Defra advisor says sheep ‘have to go’ and calls for subsidies for farmers rearing them to be scrapped as it’s ‘costing the country billions each year’


So why are Britain’s most beautiful landscapes crammed with sheep?

The answer is that until recently, like all farming, the sheep industry has been propped up with unconditional taxpayer subsidies under the EU’s appalling Common Agricultural Policy. Under this, huge amounts of taxpayers’ money are dished out each year to farmers according to simply how much land they use. In the past, these subsidies drove most farmers to grub out ancient hedgerows and remove trees, ponds and wetlands, rough margins and any other ‘ineligible’ features in order to maximise space for harvesting subsidies.

Now however, outside of the EU, England has grabbed the opportunity to end the madness, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to follow. The Agriculture Act (England) 2020, first conceived by Michael Gove, replaces the CAP with a new Environment Land Management Scheme, known as ELM – a world first, built on the premise of public money for public good. Farmers who, as well as fulfilling their vital role as food producers, take seriously their responsibility as stewards of the natural environment will be rewarded by taxpayers for doing so.

Of course, there are circumstances in which sheep are desirable. Sheep can work well in the rotational practices favoured by regenerative farms in our productive heartlands. Sheep can also aid in the conservation of certain precious cultural landscapes, such as flower-rich hay meadows. And, of course, there is a beautiful, ancient tradition of keeping pedigree sheep hefted in some areas of upland Britain, but the numbers were always far, far lower than they are today.

Wool is a brilliant alternative to synthetic materials for a range of uses, but we are so heavily oversupplied with it that wool prices have fallen virtually to zero. British-grown lamb, mutton and wool should be specialty, homegrown products to delight in. Not mass produced at a huge cost, mostly for export, at the expense of great swathes of our countryside.

It was native, horned cattle that were the dominant livestock in Britain until recent times, when sheep took their place. In Ireland, Wales and Scotland, it was the English who cleared the trees for building navy ships, before clearing the people and their cattle from the land in wave after wave of so-called clearances to make way for hordes of livestock. In many parts of Britain, the arrival of sheep was the single greatest cause of the loss of upland villages. This dark history makes the modern enthusiasm for the animals all the more perverse.

Pictured: Ben Goldsmith. Tens of millions of sheep have almost entirely stripped the hills and valleys of their green mantle

Today, it is in our most sheep-wrecked landscapes that farmers are best placed to deliver the kinds of public goods that the new English farm support scheme envisages. Moreover, Britain joined the nations of the world in pledging to restore 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our sea for nature by 2030. If we don’t begin in our upland national parks, then where? It is so important therefore that the ELM is especially generous in these areas in which it is harder to make a profit producing food. Upland farmers are are understandably feeling vulnerable at this time of change. We need to support them in a fair and just transition back to a more traditional, extensive and diverse way of farming, largely with native cattle, whose wild ancestors grazed and browsed here in vibrant wood pastures through aeons.

In low numbers, cattle are less forensic and less voracious in their grazing than sheep, allowing vegetation to establish in mosaic semi-open woodlands that are rich in wildlife of all kinds. By their dung, a single cow generates a quarter of its own body weight in insect life in a single year, providing food for amphibians, birds and wildlife of many kinds.

Native cattle, such as Longhorns, are the key now to breathing life back into both the ecology and economy of our remoter landscapes. A while ago, I visited Geltsdale in the Pennines, where the tenant farmer Tom Wilson decided a decade ago to swap his intensive sheep enterprise for a herd of native cattle. Managing several thousand sheep had been hard work and, as the end of his Countryside Stewardship scheme approached in 2010, a local Natural England representative suggested switching to cattle and a much wilder way of farming.

A deal was struck on a pioneering new stewardship scheme. The transition wasn’t easy; initially, the family missed their sheep, but they soon fell in love with their beautiful, shaggy Longhorns and, today, the awakening landscape is dotted with emergent scrub and young trees of all kinds. Amid the melancholic cry of curlews wheeling overhead and birdsong the likes of which I’ve never heard anywhere, Geltsdale is mesmerising.

Some consider a reversion to older ways of farming with native cattle instead of sheep a threat to traditional farming communities. ‘Straight out of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ was how one commentator described plans for a wilder approach in our national parks during my time as a non-executive director of Defra.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Families who have worked the same land for generations are best placed to lead this great national renewal and breathe life back into our landscapes. And grazing cattle in the traditional way amid scrub and trees, known as silvopasture in farming circles, is the best way to secure their future while reviving nature in our degraded hills.

It’s time for (most of) the sheep to go.

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