Despite the huge uncertainty surrounding the sheep sector, the National Sheep Association’s North Sheep attracted well in excess of 8000 farmers, industry representatives and local schoolchildren, on Wednesday.

The event, staged this year at New Hall Farm, in North Yorkshire, appeared busier than ever as most flock masters were in need of a good day out following a busy lambing with an increased lamb crop.

However, with the possibility of a no deal Brexit appearing increasingly likely, there was only one real topic of conversation – the UK's departure from the European Union.

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, remained confident of the future of the industry, despite the fact a third of the lamb produced in the UK is exported – of which 95% is bound for the rest of the EU.

“The UK government does recognise that the sheep industry is the agricultural sector most at risk from a no-deal Brexit and we have had verbal commitments from Michael Gove that they will support the industry," he said at North Sheep.

“The government is well aware of the importance of the sheep industry to the social, mental and physical well being of the countryside. They also want to see us survive and be part of a transition period for a bright new future. There has been a real turn around in their interest in agriculture – they want it to work,” added Mr Stocker.

“Michael Gove is looking more friendly on sheep farming than other sectors and particularly upland sheep farming because he knows it goes hand in hand with environmental schemes. A lot of the curlews, lapwings and other ground nesting birds would not be there without sheep farming.”

He also hinted that the more sensitive farms with large areas of moor/hill ground and trees could in future be used as a ‘trade off’ with other industries with huge carbon emissions. The problem at present is, he said, the tools used to work out the actual carbon footprint of farms are not accurate which, coupled with the huge variety of soil types and farm use, means quantifying actual carbon stored on each farm is extremely difficult.

However, while Mr Stoker remained relatively optimistic for the future, he and event chairman, Thomas Carrick, admitted the sheep market could be problematic in the back-end.

“People are softening towards the idea of a no-deal Brexit, just to ‘get on with it', so I’m not that optimistic for sheep prices later in the year,” said Mr Carrick, who added that farmers will have to become multi-functional and look increasingly towards environmental schemes to survive.

“Sheep farming has to be at the core of your business, but environmental schemes will become integral to the rural countryside.”

Commenting on the future of UK exports in the wake of a no-deal Brexit, Mike Gooding, director of Farmers Fresh, admitted that while he was worried, there remained a huge demand for UK lamb on the continent. “The export market is absolutely crucial to the UK sheep sector and delivering what they want and when they want it is extremely important,” he said.

“The feedback we are getting from our customers is that they love our product and want to continue buying it. They just don’t understand the politics. I just hope that common sense prevails and those in control of policy understand that,” said Mr Gooding, who buys 20-30,000 lambs per week for wholesale customers.

Jonathan Eckley, head of exports at AHDB, was equally concerned about a no deal Brexit. “Exports are all about building up contacts and delivering what the market wants and when – one of the biggest threats is the loss of these markets which are already established buyers.

“We can’t ignore the domestic market, but we have to re-invent the lamb market to get some sort of aura about it to increase demand. We have to get on the front foot and take control beyond the farm gate,” said Mr Eckley.