Press release

Leaving EU would be major threat to sheep industry

Sheep farming and the British lamb industry would be under threat if the UK left the European Union, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss warned today.

Forty per cent of all the lamb and mutton produced in the UK went to the EU in 2014, bringing £290million to the industry, including Cumbrian farmers of the iconic Swaledale and Herdwick breeds.

Ahead of a visit to meet Cumbrian hill farmers, Elizabeth Truss highlighted that outside the EU tariffs could add an additional £155million to the cost of lamb and mutton exports, making British lamb a less attractive prospect for Europeans compared to New Zealand and Australian competitors.

British lamb still does not have access to the US and China markets, so the EU is a particularly important export destination.

Without this market - which accounts for 97% of all lamb and mutton exports - prices of British lamb could crash and put the sustainability of the industry and the livelihoods of 10,000 sheep farmers in jeopardy.

Lamb exporters could also face a red tape ‘double whammy’ of different rules for animal health, food safety and labelling to sell abroad and at home – two sets of regulations, rather than one - which would add additional costs and affect their profits.

These impacts would be particularly felt by hill farmers such as those in Cumbria - as 40% of the UK’s sheep breeding flocks are based in the uplands.

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said:

Sheep farmers in Cumbria and across the uplands are a vital part of the British countryside, but without the benefits the industry enjoys from our membership of the EU the very future of this iconic industry could be under threat.

The single market is essential for British lamb - forty per cent of all the lamb reared in the UK goes to Europe. Outside the European Union, farmers could face quotas and tariffs as well as a red tape double whammy of having to follow both UK and EU rules.

Less trade could result in significant price falls, damaging the incomes of the 10,000 sheep farmers who depend on it.

This makes a vote to leave the EU a huge leap into the dark for our food and farming industry and threatens the livelihoods of thousands of British farmers.

Through our EU membership, exporters of lamb and mutton have easy and tariff-free access to the single market of 500 million people. There is also a level playing field between the UK and the EU on common standards on welfare, safety and labelling, which the UK has a say in.

Forty per cent of all UK lamb and mutton was destined for European tables in 2014 - over 50% of those exports went to France, with the remainder reaching Germany, Belgium, and the Irish Republic.

John Geldard, the owner of the farm where the Environment Secretary visited, and a former Chair of the National Sheep Association, said:

An exit would mean sleep walking in to the unknown, a totally unacceptable scenario. Many sheep farming and rural businesses are working on very thin margins with little spare capacity.

To exit the EU with an accompanying four to five years of complete uncertainty would be reckless. To remain in the EU would ensure security and strengthen our current positioning.

The Environment Secretary also made a trip to Mintsfeet Industrial Estate in Kendal, an area badly affected by the devastating floods over the Christmas period. The Environment Secretary had an opportunity to see the ongoing work to help affected homeowners and businesses recover, including seeing repairs to flooded embankments, residential and commercial properties. This follows the re-opening of the A591 in Cumbria last week allowing holidaymakers to use the road during the spring Bank Holiday and May half term.

Further information

  • Read more on the EU referendum
  • All trade figures sourced from HMRC Regional Trade Statistics
  • The EU remains the top destination for lamb exports from the UK: out of £300 million generated from exports of UK lamb and mutton around the world, £290 million came from sales to Europe in 2015.
  • The equivalent of two fifths of all the lamb and mutton produced in the UK is sold to the EU.