November 20, 2017
The National Sheep Association (NSA) was recently awarded a grant by The Prince’s Countryside Fund to conduct research into the sheep meat market and the public’s perceptions of the industry.
The sheep sector is experiencing a number of underlying challenges, such as consumption of sheep meat being in long term decline, the structure of the industry changing, and hill breed populations declining dramatically.
The UK has over 60 native breeds of sheep, the highest in the world. However, the decline in the commercial use of traditional Heritage breeds threatens their priceless genepool. The national genetic variability could disappear as many breeds shrink to non-viable levels; success in the marketplace will help secure a future for these breeds.
The decline of these breeds has also led to a decline in traditional sheep farming systems, which have developed and maintained many landscapes over hundreds of years. Sheep farming, particularly in the uplands, remains the final bastion of traditional farming systems in the UK, based largely on family farms. Without these farms, Britain’s cherished landscapes and pastoral areas would be under threat, as would the communities which still largely rely on traditional sheep farming for their survival.
The future viability of the family farm is integral to the work of the Fund. Our previous research with the University of Exeter addressed the question of whether there was a future for the small family farm in the UK and The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme helps to address the problems farmers are facing. The research being conducted by the NSA is directly linked to the aims of the Fund.
The NSA is working on a strategy to address these problems, and are now proceeding with a feasibility study to investigate whether a sustainable project to add value to UK Heritage sheep breed supply chains can be developed, with the support of the industry.
This project will focus on different aspects of sheep meat – age, breed, and where in the British countryside the sheep originates from – in turn this will offer wide consumer choice, and hopefully stimulate interest in sheep meat generally, and thus sales, particularly to younger consumers.
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