NSA engages with industry leaders in searching sheep stratification seminar

21st January 2019

The National Sheep Association (NSA) last week hosted an in-depth day long discussion meeting with sheep breed societies, leading sheep farming players, as well as Defra representatives, to discuss the future of the stratified sheep breeding system in the UK.

NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker explains: “The thinking behind the meeting was to bring together a wide variety of stakeholders to discuss the changes being experienced within the stratified breeding structure involving uplands and lowlands, the importance of this to the hill farming sector, and to identify what the industry thinks should be done about it. Not surprisingly this led to some very interesting conversations and we managed to identify some key areas that came up repeatedly and that we can now explore further when considering the future of the stratified system and its importance within hill farming.”

As well as NSA staff and office holders, attendees from a range of breed societies, farming organisations and vets attended the discussion, which drew out five main points for consideration. These were;

1) Concern over disease and parasites, particularly resistance issues, is resulting in more farmers choosing to run closed flocks.

2) There is a lack of understanding of the value of upland breed traits within the cross bred ewe, and concern that some of these traits such as hardiness and o mothering ability may be becoming weakened.

3) Selling cross bred breeding sheep is a highly important part of hill farming economics – hill farming would struggle to survive without access to breeding stock markets. 

 4) While stratified breeding and hill farming may be traditional practices there is a lot that can be done to make use of technology and innovation – tradition and innovation can complement each other.

5) The environment and public goods agenda will be a very important part of the economics of hill farming, but it is important that the sheep farming that delivers this is commercial and productive – commercial sheep farming can deliver conservation objectives, but few farmers want to be conservation graziers.

Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association Secretary, John Stephenson, who attended the meeting said: “This is a subject I have had a keen interest in for some years, so I was very pleased to attend the meeting. This meeting set a good starting point giving us more clarification on the issues we need to discuss in more details. I was, however, concerned about the lack of engagement from many Northern hill breed societies, it is essential those of us working with hill breeds get involved now and work together to protect our system while these talks are ongoing, and not when it’s too late.”

NSA Livestock Researcher Nicola Noble comments: “It was clear from the offset, that there is ‘no one size fits all’ miracle cure to resolve the challenges raised in last weeks Stratified Sheep System seminar. One area that could be taken further is the development of health assurance and/or accreditation schemes for hill flocks producing cross bred ewes. Many of the concerns focused on animal health and the uncertainty that comes with buying in stock.  With a stratified system exclusively reliant on livestock movements, improved and reliable animal health status information, as well as enhanced genetic information would increase buyer confidence, improve relationships and help overcome a lot of the uncertainty that looms over movement of sheep from the hills.  Despite not being able to resolve many of the complex issues, at least by kicking off the year with this enthusiastic discussion group, many of the opportunities highlighted are at the forefront of our minds and can be built into our future.”

NSA is now breaking down the information gathered at the meeting and will continue its work on stratification around the five key points into 2019. A full report will be available in the next edition of NSA’s membership publication 'Sheep Farmer'.