Britain’s departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a golden opportunity for the Government to reform the way the UK farms sheep. The EU policy has previously prioritised mass production of livestock over environmental concerns and actual consumer demand.
Sheep oversaturate both economic markets and the English countryside as a legacy of farming subsidies. This poses a threat to our environment. Cows are also unknowing adversaries in our plight to lowering carbon emissions, however sheep rearing demands much more space and is far less economically productive then other agricultural pursuits.
The cost of higher carbon emissions
Mighty forests have been decimated and strategically replaced with sparse fields that enhance the capacity and food supply of the livestock that inhabit them. Making up 40% of the entire nation, British uplands are incompatible with agricultural farming so have been utilised as pastures for animals.
In England, sheep farming demands 44% of our upland land mass, whilst cows are granted 29% of the space to graze. These figures become increasingly unsettling when compared to the 13% of the UK we have generously allocated to our woodlands.
This deforestation has left the UK well acquainted with higher carbon emissions by rationing the natural absorbers of the gas: trees. Trees respire inversely to humans by taking in carbon and releasing oxygen, but a forest’s ability to process carbon is greatly affected by the number of trees that are actually in it. Through replanting efforts, forest coverage in England has increased 7.8% since 1905. However, this is barely enough to combat the 315.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide Britain produced in 2019.
The term ‘deforestation’ carries connotations of butchered rainforests in Brazil. It has been coined as an exotic term, barring the idea of it ever happening in the UK. Yet the only difference between Britain and developing countries cutting the trees down is that the former began prioritising farmland over woodland over 1,000 years ago. Northern Europe’s gift of naturally superior farming terrain has left a cultural brand on it. It signifies that it has always been okay to take from our environment, as that is what we have always done.
However, it is the sheep we are breeding now that are becoming the prime carbon culprits. Sheep select the most appetising plants, with tree saplings being a particular nutritious delicacy. This prevents the expansion of woodlands, and newly planted carbon trees are consumed as saplings in bulk before they can grow.
Britain once boasted complex food chains with predators such as brown bears mediating the numbers of farmable livestock. The extinction of these creatures directly correlates to the threat they posed to our ancestors’ farm animals. In 1281 King Edward had already requested the killing of every wolf in England in order to protect pastoral farming. Biodiversity had been evicted and replaced with favourable conditions that would allow the mass production of animals.
Darwinism explains how species evolve over millions of years to best adhere to the demands of their environment. This concept has been altered by the explosion of our sheep population since the Middle Ages, when these natural predators were hunted to extinction. As seen in 2018, when Britain’s sheep population reached 22.5m.
Other species are unable to evolve; at the same time the livestock population rises. Sheep in their bulk devour the best produce in the fields, leaving other grazing species under threat. The destruction of the forests for their behalf means that many other animals that rely on the woodland for food and protection are becoming additionally vulnerable.
Where to point the finger
The UK has a culturally ingrained misconception that the demand for sheep is still high. Mutton and lamb consumption only accounts for 1.2% of the average Briton’s diet.
Britain’s relationship with the EU also dictates the success of sheep farmers. Over 30% of production is exported and 90% of that is to the EU. A ‘no deal’ Brexit would expose UK farmers’ exports to World Trade Organisation tariffs that could add 50% more to the production costs of sheep.
COVID-19 also greatly shrank the domestic market for sheep. Lamb is a popular meat consumed at pubs and restaurants. After these institutions were forced to close the market for the product fell sharply. This contributed to the price of the averaged cull ewe plummeting by £37 to £71.70 in mid-March.
Farming tends to go back generations and provides steady incomes for 34,000 households, often in poorer communities across Britain. What is needed is not the removal of sheep farming altogether but instead the reworking of the system with environmental problems that will soon parallel its lack of economic productivity. Following the end of the Brexit transition period and the UK’s departure from the CAP, the Government will be able to make these necessary changes.
Emily Wilson studies Politics and International Relations at the University of Manchester.