ANALYSIS - Upland sheep farmers in the UK need to take the lead and work closely with environmental groups and authorities to ensure the maintenance of biodiversity and the ecology of the landscape.
There also needs to be more decisions about the preservation of local ecology taken at a local level to ensure that actions taken in the name of preservation and conservation fit the environment.
These were two key messages from the Big Debate at the 2014 Sheep Event at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern this week.
The debate, chaired by the TV agricultural journalist Tom Heap, discussed the issue of conservation of the UK uplands that had been brought into question by reports from action groups and activists.
Several recent reports, that had received publicity in the UK national press had hit out at sheep farmers for allegedly harming the ecology of the uplands and accusing sheep and sheep farmers of being responsible for recent floods.
However, CEO of the National Sheep Association, Phil Stocker said that there was no scientific evidence to support the theory that sheep farming was damaging the uplands.
He said that there has been only one peer reviewed scientific study into the issue that showed that there was “little or no damage to the uplands and the biodiversity caused by sheep grazing”.
He said that there is little scientific evidence to underpin the regulations that in some cases has driven sheep off the uplands.
Mr Stocker said that in the past government legislation had encouraged overstocking through headage payments and other regulations on draining the uplands and land use that had caused damage, but he said the farming communities were sensitive to the environment.
“Some damage was being done, but it was the legislators not the farmers,” Mr Stocker said.
He added that a lot of the landscape and the biodiversity has been created by grazing animals and he said that it appeared that the NGOs were forming government policy.
Philip Walling, the author of Counting Sheep said there was a dichotomy between the environmentalists and the farmers.
He said traditionally the farmers have been taking care of the landscape and wild life but they were coming under attack.
He said that the sheep do not compact the soil and they do not cause floods as has been suggested and the main aim of the environmentalists is to have the uplands wooded.
But he warned that if the environmentalists have their way the uplands will be sheep free and human free and then he asked where will the food come from?
“We have to ask, how will we feed ourselves?” he said.
Upland sheep farmer and chairman of the Swaledale Sheep Association Alan Alderson added: “Responsible farmers show how to manage the landscape and to manage the land.
“Sheep are not the enemy of the environment. They mostly eat grass and they drink the water that falls from the skies. They don’t need a lot putting into them, except a little extra feed at the end.
“We have got to get the balance right and we need to work with these people (environmentalists).
“We are part of the landscape.”
Andrew Walker from Yorkshire Water said that the sheep farmers in the uplands had a role to play in getting the balance right in preserving the environment and the biodiversity.
Dr Pat Thompson from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that grazing had shaped the landscape and was important to the landscape.
He said different birds are reliant on different landscapes and he said that the way the uplands are used needs to be reappraised.
However, he added that it has to be recognised what the impact of past policies has been.
He said it is essential to have environmentally sensitive and economically secure farming systems.