Sheep farm in Wales
Sheep farm in Wales Flickr/ Creative Commons

Sheep farming, an ancient and iconic institution in rural Wales, is coming under threat from a number of different angles.

Sheep-raising once dominated Britain’s economy and played a significant role in the country’s industrial development. In 1660, in fact, wool accounted for two-thirds of the nation’s exports. While the wool industry has largely vanished from the landscape, lamb production remains a significant endeavor, particularly in Wales -- as recently as 2009, sheep accounted for almost one-fifth (19 percent) of Welsh agricultural output.

About 13,000 sheep farms still operate in Wales today, with about three times as many jobs related to raising of lambs.

On the whole, British sheep meat exports accounted for about 10 percent of global lamb trade.

In a report for the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust, Arwyn Owen -- farm manager at Hafod y Llan, which is owned by the National Trust, in North Wales -- noted that the climate and poor soil of Wales precluded the development of agricultural crops, but was ideal for livestock farming.

But now, dropping lamb prices, declining production, foreign competition, the euro zone financial crisis, rising feed costs, reduced government subsidies and global warming, among other issues, may conspire to endanger a lifestyle that has defined the Welsh culture and economy for centuries.

The Farmers Guardian newspaper reported that average lamb prices have dropped almost one-third over the past year, putting extreme pressure on Welsh sheep farmers.

“I understand the frustration the current situation is causing for producers, with many of the factors, such as the weather and exchange rates, clearly outside the control of the Welsh government,” Deputy Agriculture Minister Alun Davies said. “While it is ultimately for the sheep industry to ensure it produces what the market requires, the Welsh government will provide increased support to help lamb producers achieve the efficiency and profitability we all agree is required.”

Davies also said he had asked authorities to provide sheep farmers with technical assistance.

“These services are key to helping farmers drive down costs and deliver modern, thriving, profitable businesses,” he said.

However, farming union officials warn that the danger is urgent -- that slipping prices will slash incomes by more than half for many Welsh sheep farmers.

Ed Bailey, president of the Welsh branch of the National Farmers Union (NFU-Cymru) said that while breeding flock has been increasing in recent years (after a loss of more than 1-million breeding ewes in Wales between 2001 and 2009), he is worried about the future.

“Despite the fact that I remain optimistic for the long-term prospects of the Welsh sheep industry, I am however concerned that recent events will make a number of producers consider their future plans,” he told the Shropshire Star newspaper.

Wales also needs to find more export markets for its lamb as the appetite for mutton in Europe appears to be falling. The financial pinch on the continent, particularly France, one of the top markets for Welsh lamb, has also hurt the business.

One alternate possibility is China, which already accounts for a large portion of the global market.

Indeed, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 80 percent of lamb produced in 2010 was consumed by the developing world, including China, which accounts for 30 percent of consumption.

Closer to home, a potential exit by the United Kingdom from the European Union, some speculate, could also doom the Welsh sheep industry.

The Daily Post newspaper reported that Emyr Jones, president of the Farmers' Union of Wales, warned that if Britain pulled out of the EU – which may be put to referendum by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government -- it would drain some £500 million ($786 million) out of the British economy, requiring every sheep farmer in the country to generate an extra £40 per lamb just to compensate.

“The EU injects around half a billion a year into Wales’ rural communities through the CAP,” Jones said, referring to the EU’s direct subsidy payment scheme, the Common Agricultural Policy.

“Without that money our rural communities would collapse. The UK government has made it clear it will not provide that half a billion if we exit the EU. But it has not explained how our economy will make up for the loss of that money."

Such a scenario, Jones warned, would lead to the closure of abattoirs and trigger job losses.

Agriculture Minister Davies also expressed alarm over the British government’s proposals to cut CAP payments.

“This is critical funding that will help underpin not only individual farm businesses, but the wider rural economy,” he noted.

Some factors hurting Wales’ sheep industry are beyond anyone’s control.

For example, bad weather, which can exacerbate the already high costs of production and distribution.

“Last year was one of the wettest summers in the UK since records began and slowed the rate at which farmers were able to get their lambs ready for market,” Dai Davies, chairman of the Welsh red meat development agency, Hybu Cig Cymru, told the Shropshire Star.

“This delay has meant more domestic lamb coming onto the market at the same time as cheaper lamb from other countries traditionally comes into the UK. The competition on supermarket shelves has meant the market value of lamb in the UK has dropped, while the delay in finishing lambs has led to an increase in costs.”

Davies added: “At this time of year, most farmers will need to use concentrates to finish lambs because they may not get the necessary nutrients from grass alone — but this cost has increased significantly with some suppliers quoting prices 25 percent higher than last year.”

Climate change also poses a potentially grave threat to Wales’ sheep.

An animal geneticist, professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, told Wales Online that if temperatures rise over the century by the magnitude expected, the country’s current stock of lowland sheep need to either adapt or disappear.

“I think they [lowland sheep] are vulnerable on two counts,” he said.

“First, because they have lower genetic variation and because they are more [in] control over sires. Secondly, because the prediction is that the temperature variations [are] going to be much higher at lower altitudes -- I think they are vulnerable, yes. If you look at the sheep in the south of Britain, below the M4 corridor [from London to South Wales] and at sea level, the predictions are really quite stark. I think you’re going to need different sheep. It is a bit like an ‘adapt or die’ message.”

So, will Wales’ sheep farms go the way of the legendary coal mines, which have virtually disappeared?

Owen, for one, does not think so, striking a cautiously optimistic tone.

“Despite all the economic pressures, there are still young people keen to start farming,” he said.

“It has always been difficult to make a living from sheep production and virtually impossible without [government] support payments. However, sheep play a crucial role in shaping the landscape and sheep farming delivers much more than just food. In my opinion, society is increasingly recognizing that sheep farming underpins a range of outputs which are difficult to value, including nature conservation, clean water, water storage, carbon storage, iconic landscapes, recreational access and the Welsh language. For this reason I believe that there will continue to be support payments albeit in a continually evolving framework.”