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201119 | Sheep farmers blast George Eustice for 'unrealistic' no-deal Brexit comments

Sheep farmers blast George Eustice for 'unrealistic' no-deal Brexit comments

The Environment Secretary has come under fire from industry leaders following a recent interview

Environment Secretary, George Eustice, in Downing Street earlier this month. Comments made by the Cornish MP on the subject of British sheep farming's future after Brexit have been met with both shock and anger by the National Sheep Association (NSA)Environment Secretary, George Eustice, in Downing Street earlier this month. Comments made by the Cornish MP on the subject of British sheep farming's future after Brexit have been met with both shock and anger by the National Sheep Association (NSA) (Image: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire)


Sheep farmers have blasted the Environment Secretary’s “simply unrealistic” claim that producers could diversify into beef if the UK fails to secure a deal with the European Union in the next few weeks.

George Eustice made the controversial comments during an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, November 15.

The MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle accepted that the sheep sector would be one of the hardest hit in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Some 90% of lamb exports from the UK go to EU countries, but he said, even with a 48% tariff imposed on British lamb by the EU, sheep farmers should still expect to sell their produce in Europe.

According to figures from the National Farmers' Union (NFU), the South West produces just under 28,000 tonnes of sheep meat every year, which is worth £207 million
According to figures from the National Farmers' Union (NFU), the South West produces just under 28,000 tonnes of sheep meat every year, which is worth £207 million (Image: Richard Austin)

Mr Eustice, whose family have lived and farmed near Hayle for over 100 years, also said sheep farmers who run mixed livestock farms with some beef cattle could increase the proportion of beef they produced, over time, in order to make up for reductions in beef imported from Ireland.

“If we are not importing as much beef from Ireland, those mixed beef and sheep enterprises in the UK would be able to diversify into beef,” he told the programme.

Responding to the interview, the National Sheep Association (NSA) said Mr Eustice’s comments were “extremely concerning” and displayed a “lack of understanding”.

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Bryan Griffiths, who farms near Burrington in North Devon and is NSA chairman, said: “The firm prices UK sheep farmers have enjoyed this year have been driven by global demand for our product, supply has scarcely kept up with demand.

“Many people may not realise, although George Eustice definitely should, that the UK is the third largest exporter of sheep meat globally and at the same time some 65% of our own production is sold on our home domestic market.

“The machinations of Brexit may bring about changes to exchange rates, global supply chains and price fluctuations, but demand will not simply evaporate, highlighting why a deal is so crucial. We have long-term production systems and are an industry that is resilient and used to uncertainty, but Mr Eustice’s suggestion of a knee jerk switch to beef production is simply unrealistic.”

Sheep farmers, Bryan and Liz Griffiths, on their farm in North Devon
Sheep farmers, Bryan and Liz Griffiths, on their farm in North Devon (Image: Catherine Derryman)

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the NSA, said the Environment Secretary’s comments will have “angered many of our nation’s sheep farmers” for failing to identify the “unique and varied nature of sheep enterprises across the country”. He continued: “To begin with, to suggest that many of our sheep farmers are mixed farmers is wrong.

“This assumption will enrage sheep farmers across the UK who have structured their farms to focus on sheep, and it will particularly antagonise our devolved nations where the landscape includes more remote areas of countryside, especially suited to sheep, and where buildings, machinery and farm infrastructure simply would not suit a sudden switch to cattle farming.

“The fact we have many sheep farmers, especially younger farmers and new entrants to the sector who run their sheep on arable farms and on short term grass lets was completely ignored – simply switching to cattle would be impossible for them.”



He added: “I find it hard to think that George Eustice really believes what he said, and this interview leaves us thinking his comments could either be part of creating a ‘we don’t care’ attitude to bolster trade negotiations, or, and this would be highly concerning, that it exposes an underlying willingness to see our sheep industry go through a restructure to reduce its size, scale and diversity.”

Mr Stocker said following the Environment Secretary's no-deal comments, the NSA is "increasingly concerned" that of all negotiations on non-EU trade deals, those progressing at fastest pace are with New Zealand and Australia, deals offering no market opportunity for the sheep sector and deals that in fact pose the greatest risk to the UK’s sheep farmers.

He concluded: "Our sector is in a great place to benefit from a growing global demand for sheepmeat. The country’s sheep farmers work hard to supply a product that is predominantly ecological agriculture in nature, fed on grass and part of the creation of our iconic countryside. To allow British sheep farming to potentially be permanently damaged because the transition agreements to enable us to change to a different global supply chain aren’t put in place would be an act of negligence on behalf of our Government."