WORDS: Chris McCullough

As the countdown for the United Kingdom to exit the European Union continues Northern Ireland sheep farmers are considering the potential outcomes of a deal or no deal Brexit emerging.

The sector is experiencing high prices for finished lambs with optimum 20kg lambs fetching £4.45/kg carcaseweight.

Demand is also good as it is currently off-peak production season but the biggest benefit is that New Zealand prices are on a par with the UK making it less favourable to import them boosting British lamb.

However, the biggest concern for Northern Ireland sheep farmers is how Brexit will affect the industry and cross border trade with the Republic of Ireland should a hard border or tariffs come into play.

About 9000 sheep farmers in Northern Ireland run 900,000 ewes. Half of the lambs produced – about 400,000 – are sent south to meat plants in the republic for processing each year.

Northern Ireland does not have the capacity to process these high numbers in peak production times.

If a hard border is established between Northern Ireland and the republic, that vital outlet could be lost.

Carrickfergus sheep farmer and National Sheep Association Northern Ireland representative Edward Adamson says no deal is not an option.

He runs 600 Lleyn ewes and sells fat lambs through his local producer group to Dunbia Meats and some as stores for others to fatten.

“A no deal Brexit could bring no end of problems to our sheep sector. If a hard border was established, and we hope it won’t, then we could face tariffs around 45% to take the lambs south.

“More importantly, we could also face cheaper imports of lamb from places with much less welfare standards than we do, coming in to swamp our market.

“The southern market is a lifeline for local sheep farmers and if it was to end we could witness many farmers with less than 100 ewes quitting the industry as it just wouldn’t be feasible to continue.”

Food safety is a huge issue, and Northern Ireland farmers have worked for years to ensure the food they produce is the best quality it can be.

“We definitely need a deal,” Adamson says. “Demand from Northern Ireland consumers for lamb can comfortably utilise the supply for most of the year.

“However, from July to August when we are in peak production we need the processors in the south to take on that extra supply.”

If tariffs and a hard border were to become barriers to sending the lambs south, there may be options to send the lambs live via mainland UK which would cost a lot less than the imposing tariffs.

“There may be options to send lambs live across the Irish Sea into the mainland UK should a hard border and tariffs prevent sending them to the Republic of Ireland,” Adamson says.

“That would give us a new outlet in peak times if the UK as a whole was not importing so much lamb from New Zealand.

“Sending lambs live would incur costs but not as much as the tariffs would be. There is, however, the added concern about shipping more live animals and the backlash from activists regarding this,” he said.

“We could, of course, become self-sustainable for lamb in Northern Ireland but this would mean having to pay for cold storage to store the lamb meat in the peak production period and control supply from that.

“A few MPs have been citing recently that Brexit will bring cheaper food. Whatever happens we need to be able to control the imports to safeguard our own industry.

“With current prices at the level they are, sheep farmers in Northern Ireland are fairly content with the market at the moment.

“Farmers here cannot produce food any cheaper than we are doing already. We produce top quality food that should be fairly rewarded from consumers and supermarkets by paying a fair price.

“We do not want to see cheap imports produced by lower welfare standards and little traceability coming into our food chains.

“Let’s hope the UK government

can ensure a deal is reached with the European Union to safeguard the future of the agricultural industry in Northern Ireland, in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland as well.”