Wild Wales? Welsh lamb and why the government is wrong to promise the industry support post-Brexit

Photo by chrisowenrichards and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s hard to hear much above the bleating ruckus of the near 10 million sheep stripping the Welsh countryside bare. But then it’s perhaps no wonder voices are drowned out beneath the humming and baaing of those presiding over the land use for rural Wales, when sheep outnumber people three to one.

So perhaps I can be forgiven for a pinch of scepticism when the government’s Environment Minister announces that Welsh lamb “smashed £110 million” in exports last year. How much of that was propped up by subsidy? It is a poignant question when farming subsidies face such uncertainty after Brexit.

Welsh lamb may account for a third of Wales’ food and drink exports, but Business Wales estimates that only around 6,600 people are directly employed in the meat industry. At the time of the last census in 2011, there were 3.06 million people living in Wales. Of that, approximately 1,003,680 were living in rural areas. In 2011, there were around 44,900 full-time farmers and their spouses or partners living and working in Wales. This means that just 4.47% of the rural population of Wales was supported through an agricultural income. More recent statistics from 2016 estimate that there are now approximately 39,900 full-time farmers and spouses This seems vastly out of proportion when 88% of the 2.1 million hectares of land in Wales is occupied by farms and commons for agricultural purpose. George Monbiot estimates that 930,000 hectares alone is used for farming sheep across Wales.

And when we talk about supporting rural livelihoods, vast amounts of a farmer’s income is often through EU farming subsidies. A study by Aberystwyth University in 2013/14 revealed that Hill sheep farms for example, receive about £31,244 on the Single Payment Scheme and have a profit of just £18,073, meaning without subsidies, they would not break even. Since 90% of Welsh lamb exports are to the EU Brexit and negotiations over access to the single market are cause for concern for many sheep farmers in Wales in addition to the uncertainty over subsidies once we’ve exited the European Union. Gove’s visit to the Royal Welsh Show centred around diversifying the overseas market in response to these concerns, but perhaps diversifying rural livelihoods would be a better future-proof against Brexit and increasing pressures from climate change.

In the UK as a whole, far more people in rural areas are employed in the tourist sector than in agriculture and Wales’ activity tourism alone provides full-time employment for over 8000 people and generates £481 million in revenue. Considering 88% of Wales is dedicated to farming, what potential might there be if land was optimised for tourism? And rewilding could play a significant part in this. Trekking through the wilderness of Wales? Kayaking down rivers rippling in trout, salmon, sturgeon.

Could Wales be known for its rich biodiversity, rolling hills roiling in rainforests? A Welsh rainforest?! I know what you’re thinking; don’t be barmy. The first time I heard it, I too thought it was a joke. Sure, in balmier climes and times – say 300 million years or so, Wales and parts of the UK may have had some 40-foot-bark beasts (and a few beasts of the carnivorous and mobile variety) but today the only beasts to be found are metal contraptions scouring the land (and a few of us on the morning after a night out in Cardiff). But yes, Wales is home to Atlantic Oakwoods teeming with epiphytes – organisms that grow on the bark of trees and other plants – these are some of the UK’s biodiverse temperate rainforests. Mostly when I think of Wales, I think of sheep. On the world stage, the country is synonymous with ‘Welsh Lamb’ – its major export and the results of a very effective promotion campaign by the major Welsh red meat industry champion Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC).  But perhaps a place can be characterised by more than a commodity – rainforest and rewilding tourism would bring people to the community. And when you think of Wales, you’ll think of wilderness.


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