Gloucestershire has a rich history of sheep farming and Brexit is already putting it at risk. From the Cotswolds to the Forest of Dean, sheep farming is not only a major industry but it also supports many subsectors, including the processing of the meat, animal foodstuffs, transport firms and tourism.
Brexit is already having a big impact on sheep farmers: the number of breeding ewes has already dropped by about 20%, as farmers scale back production, unsure exactly what is going to happen in the future. What also worries them is the prospect of a no-deal Brexit or a situation where they lose out on their European markets. Minette Batters, Head of the National Farmers Union (NFU) says a no deal Brexit would be “absolutely disastrous” for agriculture in the UK. She also told Sophie Ridge on Sky News: “That means that you will have many farmers going out of business, and indeed you would have to look at slaughtering a large percentage of the national sheep flock.”
Around 35% of UK lamb production is currently exported to the EU and without a resolution potential tariffs of 40% may have to be imposed. Therefore a lot of sheep would be left looking for a market and Mike Gooding – Director of the farmer-owned meat processor and exporter Farmers First and one of Britain’s biggest lamb exporters – has warned tariffs on exports if the UK leaves the EU without an agreement could see the sector literally become the “sacrificial lamb” of a no-deal Brexit.
Among sheep farmers concerns about ‘No Deal’ are intensifying: Eleanor Phipps from the National Sheep Association in Malvern commented recently: “Uncertainty is a massive part of the problem. If a trade deal is not confirmed by December 2020 then No Deal could be back on the table and that is extremely worrying for the sheep industry.”
It’s not just in Gloucestershire where farmers are worried.
Helen Roberts from the National Sheep Association in Wales has said it would be “absolutely catastrophic” to leave with No Deal, while Matt Griffith, Director of Policy at Business West said a survey of businesses revealed that 77.9% were not taking measures to prepare for Brexit, largely because they don’t know what to prepare for: “Europe is such an important market, particularly for small firms. What we are seeing is a government imposing significant friction for our export market yet hasn’t conveyed what that means and how companies can adapt,” he said.
The Government has spent many millions of pounds on totally unnecessary advertising campaigns – but there is inevitably no detail to their proposals and they continue to undermine planning and investment in all industries, including agriculture. Meanwhile, Dr Séan Rickard – the former Chief Economist of the National Farmers’ Union – has warned that 50% of farms could go under if the Government were to prioritise keeping down food prices for consumers ahead of protecting agricultural producers: “The campaign to leave the EU was based on the idea that the UK would quickly secure a comprehensive new trading relationship with Europe, and that leaving would have only positive impacts on UK farming. But today the reality looks very different.”
Comprehensive trade deals can take years to complete, and the lack of certainty and knowledge about what any such a deal may contain just adds to the stress and uncertainty facing farmers. This uncertainty could go on for many, many years.
Those involved in agriculture who voted to leave the EU may have done so in good faith because people like Boris Johnson told them it would mean an improved trading relationship with the EU and a better future. The reality now looks very different, and without a full trade deal by next year Gloucestershire’s farmers and related industries could face years of uncertainty.
As Séan Rickard says: “It is impossible to project the exact number of farmers who will go out of business. What we do know is that over 40% of them will have no net income if the basic payment is removed. If at the same time the Government removes all tariffs and so depresses prices, these two factors combined will render over 50% of farms in this country unviable. The possibility of any compensation from the Government going anywhere near offsetting this is remote, because so many promises have been made to so many other sectors and not all can be fulfilled.”
“Farming is at the very heart of what makes this country great – to put that all at risk for the sake of pursuing a disastrous no deal for which the public haven’t given their consent would be an outrage against democracy,” says former Conservative MP Guto Bebb. He urged colleagues representing rural communities to consider their constituents. In Gloucestershire the rural economies are under threat and the down-turn in the sheep, farming and related industries will impact the whole county.”
Meanwhile, a shortage of workers is already affecting every sector of Gloucestershire’s farming and food production: William Fraser, the NFU’s county advisor for Gloucestershire has said farmers were already reporting a deficit in labour, which was increasing every quarter: “The long-term confidence of farmers has never been lower. There is huge uncertainty for them. But they can’t afford to take risks when they don’t know what support regime will be around. The biggest single issue is access to a labour force. This is an issue here and now. Farms are under-staffed, with not enough people on the ground to allow these businesses to function.”
Martin Griffiths lives in Gloucestershire