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.
These changes have been interpreted as increasing “efficiency”. However, there are dangers, two of which are particularly important.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Local farmer sentenced for animal welfare offences
On 6 January 2021, at Aberystwyth Justice Centre the Magistrates passed sentence on Mr. Toby Holland of Maesgwyn, Blaenporth after he was found guilty in his absence of 10 charges relating to Animal Welfare and Animal By-Products offences.
Following the trial on 3 February 2020, a court warrant was issued for Mr. Toby Holland’ arrest in connection with these offences, and he was arrested by Police in December 2020.
The District Judge, in the trial held on 3 February 2020 heard that Animal Welfare Officers of the Public Protection team visited the farm on the 29 January 2019 and found a number of animal welfare issues. A sheep was found to be lying on its back unable to move and it was evident that it had been there for some time. Despite requesting that Mr. Holland seek veterinary assistance for the animal, a visit the following day had found that he failed to seek treatment for the animal and left it to die. He was found guilty for the unnecessary suffering of this sheep.
The Animal Welfare Officers found a barn containing 19 pigs. On seeing the officers the pigs were shrieking for food. The pigs were very thin and kept in an accumulation of muck with no dry lying area available. Within the pen were two dead pigs to which the live pigs had access. A post-mortem of one of the dead pigs found that the animal had likely died of starvation after finding no fat reserves remaining in the carcass.
The Veterinarian from the Animal and Plant Health Agency who attended the farm concluded that both the dead and live pigs had been suffering unnecessarily, and Mr. Holland was found guilty of these offences. He was also found guilty of failing to meet the needs of the animals, by failing to provide a dry lying area for the pigs.
The visit on 29 January 2019 also found a number of sheep carcasses strewn across the fields. It was clear that that they had been there for some time, and the live sheep had access to the same field. The District Judge found Mr. Holland guilty of failing to dispose of the carcasses in accordance with the requirements of a notice served under The Animal By-Products (Enforcement) (Wales) Regulations 2014.
A follow up visit on 30 May 2019 found the pigs were kept in a field where they had access to plastic bags, metal sheeting with sharp edges, and animal bones and skulls. These items could cause harm to pigs, and he was found guilty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 of not providing a suitable environment for the pigs. Tthere were sheep carcasses in the fields, that Mr. Holland failed to collect and dispose in accordance with legal requirements. He was found guilty of a further offence under the Animal By-Products Regulations.
He was sentenced to 18 weeks imprisonment in total for the offences, and he was issued a disqualification order for 2 years from keeping any animals. The Local Authority were awarded £750 costs.
Following sentencing, Cllr Gareth Lloyd, Cabinet member for Public Protection Services, said: “The majority of farmers in Ceredigion have excellent farming practices, that ensures the highest standards of animal welfare. Unfortunately we must deal with a minority who for whatever reason fail to meet basic legal standards. I wish to thank the partner agencies who assisted the authority in the investigation, and the officers for their hard work in handling a difficult case.”
First week of life is key
IMPROVED new-born lamb and calf survival rates not only result in increased income, but also improve welfare, reduce disease, and reduce environmental footprint, according to the results of major GB-wide research.
The Neonatal Survival Project, funded by AHDB, Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) in the sheep and beef sector, was established to study the key factors which could drive further improvements in farm efficiency and maximise animal welfare.
Key findings show that the majority of lamb and calf losses occur in the first seven days after birth, with over 98 per cent of lamb and 90 per cent of calf losses occurring in this period.
The findings – and the recommendations for new practices to be adopted on farms – will be discussed at two major webinars. The first will be held on 5 January for vets followed by an event on 21 January for farmers. To register visit ahdb.org.uk/events.
A spokesperson on behalf of the three levy boards said: “A survey and interviews were used to understand motivations and barriers for change. While many farmers were aware of good practice industry advice on new-born survival, it was not consistently followed. This was particularly true with respect to colostrum management and genetic selection.
“Farmers were confident in their abilities to improve survival rates, but tended to underestimate new-born losses on their farm relative to national averages. A cultural stigma around losses limits farmers in discussing their experiences with peers, and in some cases, even with their vet.
“The research also discovered that losses can be highly variable between years; the importance of accurate record keeping also became apparent. While most suckler farmers have access to reliable records, a significant number of sheep farmers do not consistently record their data.”
With global pressures to reduce antibiotic use, this study found that a significant proportion of beef and sheep farmers were able to manage infectious diseases without purchasing critically important antibiotics. Preventive antibiotic use was reduced or withdrawn successfully on some farms, while oral antibiotic treatment at birth made no difference to lamb outcomes in an experimental study within this project.
The study also demonstrated that good long-term protein status in late pregnancy results in reduced lamb losses between scanning and 24 hours old.
Twin born lambs with a low serum antibody (IgG) concentration were more likely to have poorer growth rates. As shown by previous studies, poor energy balance in late pregnancy results in a low lamb IgG. This indicates that lambs born to ewes in negative energy balance are at increased risk of absorbing insufficient colostrum antibodies from the ewe.
The project is now complete, although work is ongoing to enable the implementation of a sustainable youngstock survival plan across Great Britain.
Consumers ‘sleepwalking’ away from meat
A LACK of inspiration, rather than a conscious reaction to trends such as veganism, was at the heart of the pre-Covid-19 reduction in meat, fish and poultry consumption, new AHDB research has suggested.
Before the pandemic struck, some 7.8 million (35%) households in Great Britain had unwittingly purchased less meat, fish and poultry products, according to AHDB analysis of Kantar data [52 w/e 26 January]. This figure accounted for 99% of the 1.3% volume drop in retail sales.
However, the twenty per cent of households which had at least one ‘conscious meat reducer’ accounted for just 1% of the losses, with the majority citing other reasons for reducing consumption.
The unconscious reducers were said by the report to mostly be of retirement age and living with fewer people. They were found to be much less likely to experiment with cooking or refer to themselves as a ‘foodie’, preferring more traditional dishes. They were also found to be unsatisfied with shopping for meat, with just 29% of the unconscious reducer group saying they enjoyed browsing meat aisles and only 31% find them to be inspiring.
The report urged the meat industry to focus its efforts on winning this group back as they offered a better route to boosting meat consumption than conscious reducers.
“How unconscious reducers think and feel about meat isn’t any different to those people who are actually increasing their meat consumption – they’re not turning away on purpose so there is a chance to re-engage them with the category,” explained one of the report’s authors, AHDB senior retail insight manager Kim Malley.
“The biggest opportunity is at the point of purchase. The key thing the report highlights is those people are wanting a better in-store experience. There could be simple messaging in-store to remind people why they enjoy meat, give them a bit of inspiration and remind them it’s versatile and convenient.”
Malley added the meat-free category is “excelling” in innovation and convenience through ready-meal and marinated NPD – products which the report said the meat industry had invested less heavily in.
She also praised the packaging of meat alternatives, which tended to be “very colourful and brought recipes and flavours to life” for shoppers, and urged the meat industry to do its own innovation in these areas in a bid to win back “distracted” consumers.
According to the report, distractions included negative media coverage of the meat industry and the prominence of plant-based ranges in stores.
But in positive news for the sector, it found the coronavirus pandemic had seen sales volumes of meat, fish and poultry rise 8% year-on-year in the 52 weeks to 6 September. Unconscious reducers were discovered to have accounted for 35% of this uplift.
Malley said meat “benefited massively” from the rise in in-home occasions this year and consumers thinking more about their food choices. “It has highlighted that it’s quite easy to re-engage people,” she said.
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