The National Sheep Association (NSA) has set out its stall for continued support to be given to sheep producers in upland and marginal areas, with the publication of a report entitled 'Complementary role of sheep in Less Favoured Areas'.
The report, which was launched in Britain back in May, included contributions from the NSA in NI, with past chairman, Sam Wharry, given the task of representing the views of the local association.
Presenting the findings of the report at a lunchtime meeting at Greenmount earlier this week, Wharry made a strong case to the main farming unions and also some key decision makers within DARD for financial support to be targeted at LFA sheep producers.
At present, around 80% of sheep in NI are in LFAs.
Cap Reform process
The timing of the report is no coincidence as it comes at a crucial point in the common agricultural policy (CAP) reform process.
A reformed CAP could herald a significant change in how the single farm payment (SFP), Less Favoured Area Compensatory Allowance (LFACA) and agri-environment schemes are administered in future years.
All three schemes make a significant contribution to the financial viability of sheep production in LFA areas and hill sheep producers are set to be one of the major 'winners' if SFP is moved over to an area based payment by 2019.
The main argument to be put forward by the NSA in their report is that keeping sheep in upland and hill areas is vital to maintain biodiversity.
According to Sam Wharry, without suitable financial incentives to farm in the most vulnerable areas, these areas are the first to be abandoned. There are already vast tracts of abandoned hill land in Britain.
Where land is not properly grazed by livestock, this results in the spread of invasive grasses as well as scrub and bracken, reducing the level of biodiversity.
Where heather is not grazed and managed it becomes rank, and a heather monoculture can develop.
The land is then unsuitable as a habitat for upland bird species and hill areas become impassable for hill walkers and tourists.
The build-up of vegetation also contributes to a much greater 'fuel load' and the increased risk of wild fires.
According to the NSA report there is a growing realisation of the value of the carbon stored within peat in greenhouse gas mitigation. If a wildfire burns into the peat this, releases large amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere.
The report calls for support for hill sheep producers to undertake restoration of blanket bog to 'secure and increase carbon storage'.
The report also points to wool as a 'renewable, natural and sustainable' source of fibre and to the ability of sheep to turn a low value vegetation such as heather into a high value source of protein (lamb).
"With the increasing world population and concerns about future food security, can we afford to ignore the role of upland areas in providing a sustainable food source?" asked Wharry.
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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