26th February 2021
Sustainability of Sheep Farming.
Is wool sustainable?
Can we still roast lamb without frying the planet?
Most of us have been eating meat our whole lives but many are now cutting down on or giving up meat for health, ethical or environmental reasons. Wool and the lamb/mutton industry are of course inextricably linked because wool and sheepskin is a by-product of the meat industry, so this begs the question of whether we should give up wool and sheepskin too.
Being by-products of the meat industry, wool and sheepskin are surprisingly low value in their raw state and for many years the price achieved for shorn fleece in the UK market has barely covered the cost of the shearing.
There's no doubt about the health benefits of cutting down on red meat. We should all do it!
But now Veganuary is over and some of us, like Withnail, occasionally want something's flesh. Can we occasionally feast on meat on a warming planet, with a clear conscience? And is it OK to buy wool?
The ethics of farming animals, which I plan to come back to shortly, are too big a topic for this blog post, in which I would like to tackle the sustainability of farming sheep. So...
Is sheep farming sustainable?
Is there a future for sheep and wool on a low carbon planet?
We know that factory farmed (intensively farmed) meat is totally unsustainable (and therefore intrinsically unethical) and should be avoided at all costs (see foot of page). But are there farming systems that produce meat more ecologically acceptable?
The sustainability argument against sheep
The livestock sector requires a significant amount of natural resources and has an important role in global greenhouse gas emissions. The most important greenhouse gases from animal agriculture are methane and nitrous oxide.
Sheep grazing uplands has resulted in near monoculture grasslands with habitat and species loss due to sheep’s habit of highly efficiently browsing tree seedlings.
Habitat loss, upland grazing and rewilding
Farming of sheep has been practiced in the UK for 5,000 years and sheep are largely responsible for our “green and pleasant land”. The received wisdom is that sheep grazing not only retains employment in rural areas, but also preserves cultural history and enhances landscape value and biodiversity. This has been argued by farmers and other concerned bodies for many years.
Environmentalists and conservationists, however disagree and it is now increasingly understood that hill farming the uplands is not only expensive to the tax payer, but also causes considerable habitat loss and puts species at risk, as well as increasing risks (and costs) of downstream flooding.
For hundreds of years upland farms were diverse, mixed use businesses with sheep at the centre of their activities. They were economically viable largely due to their local economies and the fact that raw wool used to have a much higher value than at present.
More recently they have continued to be viable with the support of EU Common Agricultural Policy subsidies that have been contingent on the land being in “agricultural condition”. Formerly based on the number of head of sheep, but now based on hectarage, these subsidies (which have no upper limits) bestow great advantages on large landowners who leverage economies of scale, making hill farms viable whereas, if owned in smaller parcels, they would not be. Although this is now changing, uplands have been worth significantly more to larger landowners than to smaller ones who struggle to make a living on them by sheep farming and without subsidies would be unable to, and so larger landowners own more and more of the uplands.
Since uplands are not nutritious enough for any other farming uses, even for cattle, the effect of these subsidies has been to keep them in “production”, albeit with very low productivity, hence the countryside we see today. There are increasingly strong and vocal arguments in favour of reallocating the subsidies away from sheep farming to encourage other land use, but what other land use would justify the subsidies in these remote inaccessible areas?
Our view is there is no doubt that, at least a proportion of upland areas currently in grazing could be allowed to be rewilded, with farmers being subsidised to support this for certain areas instead of subsidising sheep. The role of rewilding in reducing flood risk is becoming better understood and there are other possible benefits including outdoor and forest education, hiking and horse-trekking, eco- and forest-tourism and in some areas, fishing and shooting.
British uplands require better management with a better mix of uses, and partial reforestation, peat moor restoration and at least partial rewilding. These are profoundly important to support and regenerate habitats, for species conservation and reintroduction, and to help reduce downstream flooding, as well as maintaining the carbon sink.
Rewilding in the UK is as yet economically unproven but it is certainly cheaper than current levels of sheep subsidies on hill farms and deserves further investigation and, I would argue, large scale adoption.
British sheep farming is unique
British sheep farming is, however, a more complex beast and depends on a balance of productivity across a number of different landscapes.
The UK sheep industry is set out in a 'stratified system' which is unique to the UK, and over many years has developed into a system that plays to strengths of our different breeds and the environments and habitats of the country.
The UK comprises a wide range of landscapes, terrains and climates, playing host to approximately 90 different sheep breeds and crosses.
The stratified system is divided into three tiers: hill, upland and lowland. Some sheep will stay on the same farm, or at least in the same tier, for their whole lives, whilst others are moved down the system with age. This system is crucial in keeping the UK sheep industry productive and efficient, and a collapse of any area would change the entire face of the industry. You can find out more about the stratified system here.
With the support of subsidies, according to the National Sheep Association, the sheep sector employs 34,000 people on farms and a further 111,405 jobs in allied industries and his contributes £291.4million to employment.
Higher intensity farming of sheep
We are not aware that this exists anywhere in the UK and it is safe to say that it would be unsustainable for the same reasons as other factory farming is unsustainable.
Sheep farming does not automatically mean over-grazing and responsible management of land can easily avoid over-grazing but it is important that grazing is managed with sensitivity to other species.
So, is sheep a problem or a solution?
Grass Fed Meat
Few are aware that grazing ruminants, including cattle and sheep, are actually part of the solution. They have a vitally important role to play in rebuilding our soil fertility and carbon stocks. Sustainable agriculture actually represents an excellent opportunity to mitigate irreversible climate change, primarily via regeneration of our soils.
Crucially though, we must move away from the models of intensive monoculture agro-systems that rely on chemical inputs. Instead we must revert to rotational models that integrate the production of plants grown for humans.
A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2013 showed beef produced in the UK is more than twice as efficient as the global average and four times more efficient than some other parts of the world.
More recently, Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust said, “There’s been a critical failure in the past to look at which livestock systems and meats are part of the problem and which are part of the solution. The result is we are eating far less red meat – 15 percent down in the last year and 50 percent since the 1980s.
“In order to support the transition to regenerative farming systems, which rebuild the fertility that has been lost during the intensive farming chapter, we actually need to eat more grass-fed meat, mainly beef and lamb."
“In the UK, two-thirds of the farmed area is currently pasture (grass and clover). These grasslands play a vital role in not only maintaining a healthy soil but the land works as a soil carbon bank - absorbing carbon dioxide - as well as producing food we can eat. This is achieved through the unique ability of ruminants to digest cellulose which other animals cannot do.
Holden says, “Instead of demonising livestock in general and cattle and sheep in particular, we need to differentiate between the animals that are part of the problem, namely intensively produced poultry, pork and diary products, and those that are part of the solution, namely grass-fed ruminants. At the root of the climate change problem is our fossil fuel consumption, this is where we need to take the most urgent action”.
So, if you’re occasionally eating grass-fed beef or lamb, you can do so with a clear conscience, knowing you are part of the solution, not the problem.
Is it all hot air about methane?
No. As we know, methane is a very dangerous greenhouse gas. But it is less known that University of Oxford researchers, Dr Michelle Cain and Professor Myles Allen have recalculated the amount of methane emissions from ruminants and questioned conclusions of recent reports on the effects of methane on climate change and agriculture.
In their research, the CO2 equivalent impact of methane on global warming has been significantly reduced and the inference from the research is that we don’t have to stop eating grass-fed cattle or sheep
“We don’t actually need to give up eating meat to stabilise global temperatures. We just need to stop increasing our collective meat consumption." Professor Myles Allen
So we need to eat less and eat grass fed.
The good news about sheep is that virtually all British sheep spend almost all their lives outdoors, eating grass.
The Green Green Grass Of Home
Our much maligned temperate wet climate grows grass really well. Two thirds of British farmland is only suitable as grassland and the most efficient and only real practical way to convert this inedible grass into high-quality protein is by grazing livestock – arguably providing the most climate-friendly way of feeding our growing population.
It's true also that as Professor Peter Smith has said, chicken and pork have a lower climate footprint than ruminant meat, as they do not produce methane like the ruminants do, but the downside is that they are not able to eat grass, so they compete with humans for plant-based foods. And since this statement the debate has re-opened about the CO2 equivalence of methane considerably reducing it.
Eat less meat and avoid intensive pig and poultry farms
Gareth Morgan, Head of Policy, Soil Association says “We cannot hide from the fact that we must change our diets to fight climate change. We need ‘less but better’ meat: less meat overall, but a shift to more meat from grazing animals that support wildlife and return carbon to the soils, like on organic farms. We need to phase out intensive pig and poultry farming, linked to rainforest clearance done for growing animal feed. Recent research found that with this diet change, we could stop diverting crops to feed animals and free up land to make agro-ecological, nature-friendly farming possible across Europe – allowing for a massive reduction in pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Buy Organic, Buy Local
It is also worth remembering that we should be buying as locally as possible to minimise the food miles of everything we eat, so New Zealand lamb is definitely off the British menu.