Opinion

Irish sheep industry could be in for a Brexit windfall

If the UK fails to secure anything less than a comprehensive Brexit agreement with the EU over the coming months, then trade tariffs will become a reality.

One of the big casualties within such a scenario will be Britain’s sheep industry, which exports large tonnages of lamb to France on an annual basis.

However, under such circumstances, Ireland could be well placed to help fill the void. All of this raises some fundamental questions regarding the direction of travel to be taken by the Irish sheep industry over the coming years. Significantly, many of these could have some quite positive answers forthcoming.

Essentially, if the UK loses its market presence in France, then the scope to expand sheep production in Ireland would become more than significant.

In many ways lamb production represents the forgotten sector of agriculture in Ireland. Yet output from the industry continues to make a vitally important contribution to the food sector and the rural economy as a whole.

Sheep tick all the boxes. Management systems tend to be quite extensive in nature, making them good for the environment.

Ewes thrive where cows cannot and, of course, sheep production systems fit well within a part-time farming model.

Sheep farmers should do proportionately better from the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) arrangements, as Pillar 1 payments move to a flat-rate/area-based model.

So, it’s hard not to conclude that the Irish sheep industry has a pretty bright future ahead of it.

Given this background, now would be a good time for the likes of Teagasc and the various farm organisations to convene a think-in, looking at the real prospects for sheep in Ireland over the coming years.

Teagasc hosts its Sheep 2018 event at Athenry on Saturday, July 7. Surely this is an occasion that could be used to kick-start a root-and-branch review of the future prospects for sheepmeat production in this country.

It would also be important to secure the input of Bord Bia and the meat plants in this process.

Ireland has always been synonymous with sheep production. However, over recent years, the role played by the industry has been downplayed by the inexorable rise of both milk and beef.

But circumstances are changing – which could well play into the hands of sheep farmers. And we would look very foolish if we did not explore these opportunities in a sensible manner.