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'We can't eat our way out of the problem': Irish sheep farmers struggle to prepare for Brexit

“It’s like survival of the fittest, the lion that thins the pack of wildebeests. And Brexit is the lion.”

Image: Shutterstock/aaltair

SHEEP FARMERS IN Northern Ireland are struggling to try and prepare for Brexit; they’re breeding lambs for the coming spring in the hope that there will be some sort of deal by 29 March, when the UK are scheduled to leave the EU.

So far, there’s a stalemate between the EU and the UK over agreeing on a backstop for Northern Ireland, which has left the possibility of a no-deal scenario very likely.

That’s created a problem for a lot of industries in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In October, a UK Brexit committee were told that sheep farmers were wondering whether they should breed lambs for the spring because there might be less of a market to export lambs to.

But Edward Adamson, the Northern Ireland said regional manager for the UK’s National Sheep Association, said that he doesn’t know of anyone who isn’t “putting rams out”, or breeding for the coming season.

“If they’re keeping the rams in and there’s a deal at the end of it, that would be an even worse situation.”

He added that breeding this autumn was curtailed a bit because “Brexit was looming over us”.

Currently, around 40% of lambs in the North are exported to Ireland. By November 2017, 388,517 sheep had been imported from Northern Ireland and the UK to Ireland. In 2015, 335,349 were imported from Northern Ireland alone. 

Around 80% of Northern Ireland’s lambs are exported, so if there’s a hard Brexit, there will be nowhere to store lamb, and no one to buy it.

“There’s no way we can eat our way out of the problem,” Adamson says.

If there was a hard Brexit, it would mean getting them all killed in the North. Meat plants are struggling with the labour market as it is; some eastern Europeans have left and they’re not being replaced by people coming home.

So as it stands, there’s nowhere to store lamb meat, and if there are cold stores built it will reflect on the price of lambs, Adamson adds.

So what are farmers doing to prepare? They’re looking at their costs, but Adamson says “I don’t think they could prepare” at this point.

The problem is mirrored in Great Britain, where the UK exports 40% lamb meat, with 96% of that going to the EU.

“We’ve a huge amount of meat and we don’t know where will it go after Brexit,” a spokesperson for UK sheep farmers said.

“It’s a difficult position to be in, we don’t have any outgoings and nowhere to sell. There’s so much uncertainty.”

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been requested to build more cold storage units, so that lambs that have been slaughtered can be stored. But they’ve yet to respond to those calls. 

Adamson said that he’s asked a number of farmers in Northern Ireland about the possible benefits, and said that he hasn’t heard of any.

He says that claims that the sheep farming industry will be wiped out if there’s a hard or no-deal Brexit is exaggerated, but that it will hit the industry hard.

It’s like survival of the fittest, the lion that thins the pack of the slower wildebeests. And Brexit is the lion.

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