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The Importance of Sheep in Conservation Management
2012-11-15

The National Sheep Association (NSA) says UK governments should follow the lead of Australia, where top-level environmental strategists have backtracked in recent months and acknowledged the importance of sheep in conservation management and sustaining habitats for important species.

photo © Jennifer MacKenzie

Swaledale ewe and lambs

The NSA believes that while some environmental bodies in the UK have realised the importance of sheep, there are still too many examples where limited stocking numbers or a total ban on grazing is putting biodiversity and environmental sustainability at risk. It also creates major hurdles for farmers trying to run efficient and profitable businesses, as well as preventing them optimising production in an era where a rising world population is putting food security at the top of the agenda.

The situation has been similar in Australia – although the virtual disappearance of one bird species means sheep farmers are now being welcomed back with open arms. Over the last 20 years the Government and various environmental groups purchased more than 11,000 hectares (around 27,000 acres) of farmland in northern Victoria to stop sheep and other livestock grazing there. However, after 150 years of living alongside livestock, numbers of some species dropped dramatically when the sheep disappeared, particularly the endangered Plains Wander bird (similar in size and appearance to a quail) and some plant species that cannot compete with dominant and invasive grasses.

Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, says: “For too long over-grazing has been misunderstood, forcing stocking numbers to be cut too far and areas to suffer from the very serious problem of under-grazing instead.

“Sheep are a central part of our landscape and environment, the range of species in the UK and also local communities. Preventing them grazing certain moor and hill land, where sheep have been an important part of the mix for many generations, creates far more problems than it solves.  The majority of the UK’s biodiversity is farmland-dependent and it has evolved this way because of farming practices, such as sheep grazing, that has been practiced for literally thousands of years.

“The NSA’s report on The complementary role of sheep in Less Favoured Areas highlights many of these problems and we will continue to work tirelessly to improve understanding of the situation and see sheep return in sensible numbers to many areas of the UK.

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