We need to talk about the sheep.
The inescapable truth is that sheep are the biggest obstacle to meaningful nature recovery in UK National Parks and other marginalized agricultural landscapes.
There is no way around it. The sheep must go.
The British highlands, once made up of vast woodland 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 stripped the hills and valleys of their green coat. Except in small pockets, trees, brush, wildflowers and birdsong are largely absent from our highlands. All you find are sheep. Go visit almost any of our national parks and see for yourself.
Sheep are the main obstacle to meaningful nature recovery in Britain’s national parks and other marginalized agricultural landscapes, writes Ben Goldsmith. [File image]
Sheep are susceptible to a range of parasitic infestations and therefore need to be regularly dipped in virulent chemical pesticides such as clikzin, which seeps into the natural environment poisoning the soil, and the invertebrates on which the entire food chain depends . These treatments make the sheep so poisonous that even the maggots are unable to consume them if they die on the hill, which they often do.
It’s not just wildlife that loses; sheep have a brutal impact on the hydrology of our landscapes. By compacting soil and removing vegetation, animals create bare hillsides that are simply unable to collect and store rainfall, making soil erosion, flash floods and seasonal drought much more frequent and more severe. serious, costing the country billions every year.
Sheep are not native to Britain. They come from the arid hills of Asia Minor. Sheep are suffering terribly in Britain, drenched as they stand exposed to the rain on our windy, wet hillsides. Their feet tend to rot in our perpetually soggy soil. The fact that even English acorns are poisonous to sheep speaks volumes.
And, surprisingly, the British don’t eat much lamb or mutton. However, many people passionately argue that sheep are an important component of our national food security. It’s mostly nonsense. Sheep tend to be raised on our less productive land, in areas not suitable for growing crops. There is strong evidence to suggest that, taking into account the winter feeds that must be brought in from elsewhere, and the negative hydrological impact on more productive agriculture further into our watersheds, sheep farming mountain is likely to be negative in terms of actual food. production.
The British highlands, once made up of vast woodland 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 farms are also hopelessly economically unviable, unable to provide a decent living for hardworking sheep farming families. As the average age of sheep farmers increases more and more, their net income decreases more and more. In sheep farming, there are no more winners, only losers.
In sheep-dominated landscapes, much of which falls within our national parks, nature’s decline has been accompanied by economic and social decline.
So why are Britain’s most beautiful landscapes stuffed with sheep?
The answer is that until recently, like all agriculture, the sheep industry was supported by unconditional taxpayer subsidies under the EU’s abysmal Common Agricultural Policy. Under this, huge sums of taxpayers’ money are distributed to farmers each year based simply on the amount of land they use. In the past, these subsidies caused most farmers to uproot old hedgerows and remove trees, ponds and wetlands, gross margins and any other “ineligible” features to maximize space for harvesting subsidies. .
Now though, outside the EU, England have seized the opportunity to end the madness, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to follow. The Farm (England) Act 2020, first devised by Michael Gove, replaces CAP with a new environmental land management scheme, known as ELM – a world first, based on the principle of public money for the public good. Farmers who, in addition to fulfilling their vital role as food producers, take seriously their responsibility as stewards of the natural environment will be rewarded by taxpayers.
Of course, there are circumstances in which sheep are desirable. Sheep can function well in the rotational practices favored by regenerative farms in our productive hearts. Sheep can also contribute to the conservation of some valuable cultural landscapes, such as flower-rich hay meadows. And, of course, there is a fine, old tradition of keeping purebred sheep bred in parts of the highlands of Britain, but the numbers have always been much, much lower than they are today.
Wool is a brilliant alternative to man-made materials for a range of uses, but we’re so overstocked with it that wool prices have fallen to virtually zero. British-grown lamb, mutton and wool should be specialty local produce to relish. Not mass-produced at enormous cost, mainly for export, to the detriment of large swathes of our countryside.
It was the native horned cattle that was 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 to build naval ships, before clearing the people and their livestock from the land, wave after wave of so-called clearing for make way for herds of cattle. In many parts of Britain, the arrival of sheep was the main cause of the loss of highland villages. This dark history makes the modern animal craze all the more perverse.
Pictured: Ben Goldsmith. Tens of millions of sheep have almost completely stripped the hills and valleys of their green coat
Today, it is in our most sheep-stricken landscapes that farmers are best placed to deliver the kinds of public goods envisioned by England’s new agricultural support scheme. Additionally, Britain has joined the nations of the world in pledging to restore 30% of our land and 30% of our sea to nature by 2030. If we don’t start in our national parks highlands, so where? So this is so important that the ELM is particularly generous in those areas where it is more difficult to make a profit by producing food. Upland farmers naturally feel vulnerable in this time of change. We must support them in an equitable and just transition to a more traditional, extensive and diverse way of farming, largely with indigenous livestock, whose wild ancestors have grazed and grazed here in vibrant wooded pastures for eons.
In low numbers, cattle are less forensic and less voracious in their grazing than sheep, allowing vegetation to become established in mosaic semi-open forests rich in wildlife of all kinds. Through their droppings, a single cow generates a quarter of its own body weight in insects in a single year, providing food for amphibians, birds and wildlife of all kinds.
Native cattle, such as Longhorns, are now the key to reviving the ecology and economy of our most remote landscapes. Some time ago I visited Geltsdale in the Pennines, where sharecropper Tom Wilson decided ten years ago to swap his intensive sheep business for a herd of native cattle. Managing several thousand sheep had been hard work, and as he approached the end of his campaign management program in 2010, a local Natural England representative suggested switching to livestock and a method of much wilder breeding.
Agreement has been reached on an innovative new stewardship program. The transition was not easy; The family initially missed their sheep, but they quickly fell in love with their handsome, shaggy Longhorns, and today the awakening landscape is dotted with emergent brush and saplings of all kinds. Amidst the melancholy cry of curlews circling overhead and the chirping of birds unlike any I’ve ever heard anywhere, Geltsdale is mesmerizing.
Some see a return to old ways of farming with native cattle instead of sheep as a threat to traditional farming communities. “Straight out of the Mad Hatter Tea Party,” is how one commentator described plans for a wilder approach to our national parks during my tenure as 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 revival and bring our landscapes back to life. And grazing cattle in the traditional way amid brush and trees, called silvograzing in agricultural settings, is the best way to secure their future while reviving nature in our degraded hills.
It’s time for (most) sheep to go.