UK sheep farming 'wrongly blamed' for climate change

The positive environmental role of UK sheep farming is being 'ignored', the industry fears
The positive environmental role of UK sheep farming is being 'ignored', the industry fears

UK sheep farming is being 'wrongly blamed' for climate change amid a rise in 'unbalanced and inadequate' reporting, farmers have warned.

Industry leaders have criticised the 'fashionable' attacks on livestock farming which encourage people to eat less red meat in order to reduce emissions.

Instead, the National Sheep Association (NSA) said British farming methods contribute 'positively', and could do 'even more with the right incentives'.

It comes as the Committee for Climate Change and the UN produce reports which highlight the need for measures to reduce global warming and address species decline.



According to the 1,800 page UN report, released on Monday 6 May, one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, which points to agriculture and fishing as the primary causes of the deterioration.

Meanwhile, the Committee on Climate Change calls for the UK to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero over the next three decades. It encourages people to eat less red meat and for more trees to be planted.



The NFU responded to this by highlighting that the most effective ways to reach agricultural net zero targets are improvements to farm productivity, carbon capture and renewable energy.

The NSA said it welcomes the need for measures to reduce global warming and address species decline. However, it is concerned that some of the recommendations relating to agriculture and food are 'unbalanced'.

Chief Executive Phil Stocker said: “It is really frustrating to yet again see our extensive livestock sectors caught up within criticisms of agriculture and their impact on climate change and biodiversity, and little mention of other damaging activities, that may be less popular to criticise.

“It is seemingly OK to offset emissions from flying around the world through carbon sequestering actions such as tree planting and peatland management, but not OK for a farm to do its own internal offsetting.”

The role of grazed grassland, rotational and permanent leys, in building soil organic matter, soil biology, and storing carbon is 'ignored', the group highlighted.

Different systems of production

Many of the climate change assumptions regarding ruminant livestock farming are based on global systems of production that are different to the UK's mainstream methods.



Sheep and beef systems in the UK are predominantly grass based and grazed that 'operate in harmony with wildlife', the NSA said, rather than a feedlot style production that is based on crop production, feed processing and transport.

The group is also keen to see more distinction between different greenhouse gasses. Mr Stocker added: “While we can’t ignore methane, if we take it out of the equation for a moment you can easily argue that sheep farming in the UK helps combat climate change.

“It absorbs and stores carbon, reduces risks of wildfires, and enhances soil conditions. When methane is added to the equation the old methods of greenhouse gas conversion to carbon equivalents will inevitably make things look bad.

“But methane acts very differently to carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and in comparison has a short, rotational life cycle which means as long as livestock numbers stay stable methane levels don’t build and build.”

He added: “It can be argued that reducing livestock numbers will have a cooling effect over time but livestock are not the only emitters of methane and they provide a wide range of other multi-functional benefits including converting grasslands that cant be cropped into high quality protein and nutrients, building soil fertility for subsequent crop production, mixed farm environments that are good for biodiversity, and a landscape that people enjoy.”

Over recent years, the sheep industry has produced a series of reports demonstrating ways farmers can do more to further enhance its environmental credentials whilst also improving enterprise productivity.

The reports also highlight how upland and lowland regions, grassland and arable, can benefit from the integration of sheep.