Over the last week I have been helping out on a farm in the Scottish Borders in the lambing shed (hello to you all at Overlangshaw!) and while I was there I began reading Alan Butler’s book ‘sheep’, a work that sets out an argument for sheep being some of the most important historical actors of all time, forging the grazed hill landscape we recognise today. This article specifically focuses on environmentalist George Monbiot’s prominent attack on sheep. In an article last year in the Spectator, titled Sheepwrecked, Monbiot claimed that ‘Britain has been shagged by the white plague’ and sheep have ‘done more extensive environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place’, preventing ecological succession on the hills and sentencing our landscapes to monocultures of grasses rather than the complexity of species that might otherwise be able to thrive (I suggest you read the article to fully understand Monbiot’s point of view – click here). Sheep farmers responded in quite a defensive manner, furious with Monbiot’s argument, seeing it as the latest wave of attack from a non-farmer environmentalist community.
The issue has left the spotlight somewhat and so I feel it is right to look at it again, the media furore having passed and emotions, which ran high on both sides, having settled. Personally I sympathise to an extent with both camps and feel that both have failed to sufficiently take in to account the argument of the other. I have a great interest in sheep farming and indeed have aspirations to keep my own sheep in the future. However, as an environmentalist as well, I fully take on board Monbiot’s argument that sheep, when placed on to areas in numbers that lead to overgrazing, have raped the landscape. We need to find a balance between working the land and enabling a diversity of species to flourish on the hills. Yet again it highlights a critical issue, that of the apparent unsounded conflict between environmentalists and farmers. Far too few farmers, while they may claim an interest in environmental issues, fail to manage their land in ways truly sympathetic to their land and critically use methods that allow for a sustainable future, economically but also ecologically. Soil erosion after all is one of our most critical threats. They see ‘environmentalists’ as a threat to their independence as land managers. Similarly, far too few environmentalists have a real knowledge of agriculture and sympathise with the expectations and pressures put on farmers to make a living from the land. Compromise is needed.
There are claims on both sides in the sheep debate that I feel are heralded without sufficient evidence or are based on personal sentiment. For example, I struggle to accept Monbiot’s argument that the recent floods have their origins wholly in sheep stripping the landscape in the uplands, although it is certainly true that sheep remove a great diversity of plant species on the hills which has a direct effect on drainage and soil saturation, ultimately also having an effect on water levels in the lowlands. However, sheep cannot of course be the only reason for the floods. Similarly, some farmers claim that under-grazing is more of an issue than over-grazing, something that is based wholly on the point of view of their community interests and experience. This fails to recognize that the look of the landscape is a culturally conditioned concept and I struggle to see why letting ecological succession take its course, resulting in ‘out of control’ scrubland, has any less value than a landscape stripped by sheep and resulting in a monoculture grassland. The compromise would be to create a landscape that is grazed partially but in a controlled manner, carrying out grazing by different livestock species, protecting some plants, continuing ‘sheep culture’, sustaining communities and enabling a diversity of species to flourish. Whether this is possible or not is another matter.
Despite the extent of sheep farming in Britain and the extensive sheep population Britain continues to import lamb. Food security is an issue that most people are unconcerned about, even though it is another of the major threats we face. The hills are a hard landscape for farming and for centuries sheep have provided the answer to farmers for how to make an income and allow hill communities to thrive. However, the truth of the matter is that times have changed and many of these businesses would not survive without subsidies and, as Monbiot claims, managing the landscape with sheep in unsustainable both economically and ecologically. These subsidies are provided by European taxpayers. A serious conversation is needed regarding how taxpayers want the landscape to look and what they want out of it – ecological diversity or cheap lamb. Policy can then be written to fulfil this wish. Most land that sheep survive on is inappropriate for growing cereal and horticultural crops hence why it is exploited for livestock in the first place. Monbiot asks for some, not all, of this land to revert to ‘wilderness’ – ‘rewilding’ as he calls it. He started an important conversation regarding the way we manage land and the value we place on Britain’s ecology. However, sadly critics and supporters of Monbiot, following publication of his sheepwrecked article, were steadfast in sticking to their own camps – agricultural v environmental – and the conversation was both emotional and angry, rather than the calm and considered approach required for the debate. Sadly I think it will be a long while before we see the majority of farmers being environmentalists themselves and the majority of environmentalists understanding farming businesses. The status quo results in a land management policy that is both confused and unsustainable.