While Brexit uncertainty may be the biggest factor currently playing on sheep farmers’ minds, there are reasons to be positive, delegates at the Texel Sheep Society’s recent iTexel conference were told.

Rizvan Khalid, of Shropshire-based Euro Quality Lamb, said growing young Muslim demographics across the EU were likely to see increasing demand for sheepmeat. “In the UK at the moment it is estimated that Muslims, which makes up just 5% of the total population, consume 20% of the sheepmeat eaten in the UK.

Similarly, in France there are 6m Muslims and by 2030 it is estimated that 29% of 15-19 year olds will be Muslim. “There are differences in the type of sheepmeat required in different countries, with the UK Muslim population being largely south Asian and thus more inclined to eat mutton. However, much of the European Muslim population being northern African and Middle Eastern and are thus more likely to eat lamb,” he explained.

Adding a note of caution Mr Khalid said it would be important for UK producers and processors to maintain their focus on the European market as, while other emerging markets offered opportunities, they were unlikely to be immediate fillips to the trade. “These will be longer-term opportunities and won’t in the near future replace the high volumes taken by EU markets.”

Meanwhile, SRUC’s senior agricultural economist, Steven Thomson, said he believed the current Brexit deal was potentially the best that could be achieved and was without doubt better than a ‘no-deal’ scenario. “The UK sheep sector is reliant on access to EU markets, a no-deal would put that at serious risk for some time and could potentially result in tariffs being applied to UK sheepmeat exports to the EU," he argued.

“A ‘no-deal’ would, in all likelihood, result in the UK government cutting import tariffs on imports, resulting in a double whammy effect of cheap imports and limited exports,” he said.

The bottom line is that every Brexit analysis says farming is likely to take a hit on the way out of the EU, he added. “There are also hurdles to be overcome with future support payments as World Trade Organisation rules say that support payments have to be in lieu of income forgone or additional costs incurred.

“That brings in to question the idea of public money for public goods as espoused by many in the UK at the moment. On lowland units implementing environmental measures this may be easier to work around as obviously if you take land out of high output arable or root crop production for environmental schemes the income forgone is significant

“But much of the UK sheep industry is on marginal land and the income forgone or costs incurred in these areas is going to be significantly less than that in more productive systems.”

Looking at consumption, Mr Thomson said sheepmeat was at the mercy of the markets and consumer incomes, with a 7-9% fall in sales coming when prices increased by 10% and sales dipping by 5% when consumer incomes fell by 10%. “There are challenges to come and the industry must help itself to overcome them,” he said.

However, Natalie Howes, of AbacusBio, said there were opportunities to increase value from UK lamb, with consumer research suggesting shoppers were prepared to pay 18% more for lamb from higher animal welfare systems and 15% more for better food safety.

“There are things which can be done on-farm to add value to lamb through both management and breeding. Understanding the market better will help too as it gives opportunities to add value or increase sale volumes based on novel traits,” she explained.

But there were challenges in taking this approach as marketing lamb based on novel traits needs supply chain transparency and collaboration between breeders, finishers and processors, said Miss Howes.