IMPROVING Britain's already high farm animal welfare standards will not win us new overseas markets after Brexit – but it could leave our domestic industry more vulnerable to cut-price imports from countries with poorer welfare records

Giving evidence to a House of Lords’ Select Committee on the impacts of Brexit on their sector, the National Sheep Association challenged the suggestion by Food and Farming Minister George Eustice that future UK farm support payments could be explicitly linked to improved on-farm animal welfare practices as a means of driving worldwide demand for UK farm products.

NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “Recent comments from Mr Eustice suggest we are destined for higher welfare standards and even tougher legislation after we leave the EU. But if we look at sheep, there are few concerns over welfare conditions and where we can make gains is in the area of improving health – something that would increase efficiency and welfare at the same time.

"The UK is already renowned for its high levels of welfare and sound regulatory platform – and NSA has long made the case that improvements to flock health and disease control will work to maintain this reputation, more so than introducing any additional legalisation could. In areas like this, the sheep industry needs help and encouragement, not further red tape,” he said, suggesting that Defra should focus on providing support for flock health planning, and enhancing the involvement of experienced sheep vets in the industry.

The industry would also benefit, he added, from a clear system of capital investment support for farm infrastructure such as fences, handling equipment, soil improvement and other actions to aid efficiency, sheep health and environmental management.

“As we exit the EU, if we are serious about raising the health and welfare of sheep there are two key areas to concentrate on. One is a new approach to Government/public support to incentivise health, welfare and efficiency, and the other is ensuring enterprise profitability," said Mr Stocker.

"The Government and our levy bodies have a massive responsibility to ensure viable trade agreements, market access and product demand post-Brexit. There is absolutely no doubt that if sheep are profitable they are valued more highly, and if they are valued they will be invested in.”

Conversely, if markets were lost, sheep would be worth less and welfare would be at risk – a major concern given that 35% of UK sheep meat production is currently exported and 96% of it goes to the EU.

“If we crash out of the EU without tariff-free access we could be paying a tariff of 46% on lamb exports into Europe," he warned. "That’s enough to make trade not work. Talk of new trade with other countries is all very well but for this to be done within two years is unrealistic. We either need a viable export trade or we need to find ways, within World Trade Organisation rules, to protect our own shores from cheaper lamb coming in produced to lower environmental and welfare standards."