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Farming

New tastes from old traditions

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National Sheep Association: Additional funding provided

THE NATIONAL SHEEP ASSOCIATION (NSA), working in partnership with others, is delighted to receive the additional funding to explore consumption opportunities for UK heritage sheep breeds connected to landscapes and specific products.

NSA Mutton Consultant Bob Kennard has put together the information below in conjunction with a survey designed to gather views on the proposals.
Consumption of sheep meat is in long-term decline, especially when compared to poultry consumption.

The structure of the UK sheep industry has changed over the past 40 years from a predominantly traditional stratified system, towards a much more non-stratified one, where a few ‘general-purpose’ breeds are scattered in several ecological and altitude zones to directly produce finished lambs
Hill breed populations have declined quite dramatically over the past 40 years, as have other traditional UK Heritage breeds.

Whilst the pure-bred numbers have been in general decline, several cross-breds have been on the rise. A few breeds have seen dramatic increases in numbers, including the Texel and Lleyn.

New breeds and composites are still appearing. This is a continuation of breeding innovation that has occurred for centuries. However, there is some concern in the industry about recent such developments, especially if the ownership of these genetics is held by breeding companies with contacts, skills, and finance, to establish marketing relationships with national supply chains and/or supermarkets. Experience of such developments in other livestock sectors is that it can have sudden and far reaching effects on reducing genetic variety.

The Dangers

These changes have been interpreted as increasing “efficiency”. However, there are dangers, two of which are particularly important.

  1. The threat to the genetic viability of our native sheep breeds

    The UK has over 60 native breeds of sheep, the highest in the world. The decline in the commercial use of traditional Heritage breeds of sheep threatens the priceless genepool which they give us. Who knows what genetic traits will be needed in future, especially with the effects of climate change? This national asset of genetic variability could disappear as populations of many breeds shrink to genetically non-viable levels. No sheep breed can rest on its laurels and resist moving with the times, but all breeds carry valuable traits that need recognition. Their future will be more secure if they succeed in the marketplace.

  2. The threat to the landscape and communities of the uplands

    The decline of stratification has reflected a decline in traditional sheep farming systems, which have developed and maintained many landscapes over hundreds of years. The intensification and ‘increased efficiency’ of farming enterprises such as pigs, poultry and dairy have changed these sectors beyond recognition. Sheep farming, particularly in the uplands, remains the final bastion of traditional farming systems in the UK, based largely on family farms. However, unlike other farming sectors which are less landscape-based, the decline of traditional sheep farming has more far-reaching impacts. Not only are the cherished landscapes and other pastoral areas under threat, but also the communities which still largely rely on traditional sheep farming for their survival.

Industry Response

It is with this backdrop that the NSA, together with a number of industry bodies are developing a strategy to help address these problems. With a recent donation from the Prince’s Countryside Fund to add to industry donations, we are now able to proceed with a feasibility study to find a practical solution. The work, to be carried out over the next few months, will investigate whether a sustainable project to add value to UK Heritage sheep breed supply chains can be developed.

Diversifying the Sheep Meat Market

Industry-scale promotional and marketing efforts currently concentrate, understandably, largely on just one product, Standard Lamb. Meanwhile, sheep production has a gloriously diverse heritage.

It has been said that breed has little impact on sheep meat flavour, but this is only likely to be true of lamb where flavours have not had time to develop, as with veal. Increasing evidence is now demonstrating that with mutton there are definite differences in flavour between breeds. This would have been no surprise to Victorian Foodies.

The current sheep meat market could be compared to the wine market of the 1950s and 1960s, when there was only a small handful of widely available wines. This has now exploded into thousands. The same pattern can be seen for cheese, beer, bread and so on. With increased interest in the story behind our food, the time seems right to offer the consumer more choice in sheep meat, without harming the core Standard Lamb. Indeed, a number of producers have been doing so for years, albeit without much industry support.

Why should we more actively support the diversity of sheep products?

  • If the diversity of sheep meat was actively celebrated and promoted, it could lead to important benefits;
  • Enhanced farm incomes, particularly in upland areas;
  • Support & encouragement for local supply chains, and other local businesses, keeping more wealth within the local community;
  • Help to ensure the financial and genetic viability of our traditional UK heritage breeds;
  • Help to maintain traditional farming systems which have developed in harmony with the environment, and created our iconic British landscapes.
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Farming

Big Farmland Bird Count returns

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JIM EGAN has sent out a rallying cry for people to pick up their binoculars and go bird-spotting for the Big Farmland Bird Count (BFBC) which returns on Friday, February 8.

The passionate organiser of the count, organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), is urging farmers, land managers, gamekeepers and all wildlife enthusiasts to spend 30 minutes recording what species they see on their patch of land from February 8th to the 17th.

Your support will help identify the farmland birds that are flourishing due to good conservation methods and ones in need of most support.

“It would be fantastic to see even more farmers to take part in the count this year,” said Jim.

“Counting birds on farms is a great way to recognise what species are there as well as being an opportunity to take time out and see the benefits of work such as wild seed mix and supplementary feeding.

“Taking part and submitting results enables us at GWCT to shout about the important conservation work many farmers are doing.

“We want landowners to be proud of their efforts. We will make sure that the public and policymakers hear about what can be achieved on Britain’s farms. The BFBC is a very positive way to showcase what can be achieved.”

Backing this vital citizen-science project, running for the sixth successive year, is the NFU, which is this year’s sponsor.

President Minette Batters is vowing her support to the count by going bird-watching on her farm in Downton, Wiltshire.

She will be joined on day one with GWCT biodiversity advisor Pete Thompson, an advocate of the count, both of whom will be ready with their binoculars, notepads and sharpened pencils, recording what they see.

“I am delighted to be taking part in this year’s GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count which the NFU is pleased to be sponsoring for the very first time,” she said.

“It’s becoming an important national event where thousands of farmers and growers around the country are able to take stock of and importantly, take pride in what they find on their land.

“The NFU supports initiatives like the Big Farmland Bird Count as without sound management of the environment, enhancement of habitats, protection of wildlife and support for pollinators and soils, we do not have farming businesses.

“So, I would encourage all farmers to take part, and also remember to submit your records to the GWCT, so we can pull together a vital national snapshot of the state of the nation when it comes to farmland birds.”

A record-breaking 1,000 people took part in last year’s count, recording 121 species across 950,000 acres.

A total of 25 red-listed species were recorded, with five appearing in the 25 most commonly seen species list. These include fieldfares, starlings, house sparrows, song thrushes and yellowhammers. The most plentiful of these were fieldfares and starlings, which were seen on nearly 40% of the farms taking part.

At the end of the count, the results will be analysed by the Trust. All participants will receive a report on the national results once they have been collated.

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Farming

New Flock and Herd Health Officers

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HYBU Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) has appointed two new Flock and Herd Health Officers to its ambitious five-year Red Meat Development Programme, designed to equip Wales’s lamb and beef industry for a changing future.

The posts are key to delivering the programme’s commitment to helping farmers achieve on-farm efficiency and drive best practice in proactive animal health planning.

The programme is supported by the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 – 2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.

Lowri Reed hails from a farming background near Llanon in central Ceredigion, whereas Lowri Williams is from Llanfihangel y Creuddyn near Aberystwyth, and is a graduate in Animal Management and Welfare from Harper Adams University.

Dr Rebekah Stuart, the coordinator of the Flock and Herd Health Project at HCC, said: “We’re delighted to have recruited two officers with experience and knowledge of agriculture and flock management to this important strand of work.

“There are few things that can have as great an impact on the efficiency and bottom line of a livestock enterprise as a proactive and coordinated approach to animal health and eradicating disease.

“The project will help farmers to work with vets to put health plans in place and monitor their effectiveness. Since opening an initial expression of interest window late last year at the Winter Fair, we’re encouraged by how many farmers are keen to be involved. We look forward to working with them to put this exciting project into action.”

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Farming

Agri-food robotics centre launched

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A NEW advanced training centre in agri-food robotics will create the largest ever cohort of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) specialists for the global food and farming sectors, thanks to a multi-million-pound funding award.

The world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for agri-food robotics is being established by the University of Lincoln, UK, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded £6.6m for the new Centre which will see a massive influx of high-level robotics expertise at a vital time for the agri-food industry. The CDT will provide funding and training for at least 50 doctoral students, who will be supported by major industry partners and specialise in areas such as autonomous mobility in challenging environments, the harvesting of agricultural crops, soft robotics for handling delicate food products, and ‘co-bots’ for maintaining safe human-robot collaboration and interaction in farms and factories.

Professor Tom Duckett, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Lincoln, is the new Centre Director. He said: “Automation and robotics technologies are set to transform global industries – within the UK alone they will add £183bn to the economy over the next decade.

“Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK – twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined – supporting a food chain, from farm to fork, which generates a Global Value Added (GVA) of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry.

“However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions, and the demographics of an ageing population in advanced economies.

“Addressing these challenges requires a new generation of highly skilled RAS researchers and leaders, and our new CDT will be dedicated to delivering that expertise. It will be a real focal point for robotics innovation in the UK.”

At Lincoln, the CDT represents an important partnership between robotics researchers from the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS) and agricultural experts from the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT), as they work together to combat these pressing issues facing the global food chain.

Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, Professor Simon Pearson, said: “It is widely agreed that robotics will transform the food and farming industries in the coming years, but there is still a major skills gap in this area. Working with our industry and academic partners to design the 50 PhD scholarships will enable us to expand the UK’s science and engineering base, delivering a flood of skills and expertise that will drive our food and farming industries into the future.”

Professor Richard Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at UEA, added: “Agriculture remains an important and atavistic activity in the UK but it the most dangerous of all the main UK industry sectors. Given that, isn’t it astonishing that so much effort is devoted to robots for driving and delivering parcels to your door?

“This project will initiate a new movement to build robots to handle the unpleasant, difficult and repetitive aspects of farming. At UEA our expertise is in Computer Vision which is making computers that see. We’d like to build robots that can see when an ear of corn has ripened or be able to measure the amount of sunlight falling on a field of wheat or to tell when beans are ready for picking. We look forward to developing new systems that handle the challenge of being on a farm.”

The Centre brings together a unique collaboration of leading researchers from the Universities of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia, together with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, supported by leading industrial partners and stakeholders from across the food, farming and robotics industries. These include John Deere, Syngenta, G’s Growers, Beeswax Dyson, ABB and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

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