Sheep farmers have a great story to tell when lamb is a natural, high health, high protein meat able to be finished solely from grass, but they have a long way to go when it comes to health status and improving levels of efficiency.

That was the stark warning from independent sheep vet, Fiona Lovatt, who said that while the UK is the fifth largest producer of sheepmeat in the world, the industry faces a number of challenges.

"Sheep farmers can no longer afford to be average – you need to be in the top 25% of producers if you are going to survive," said Dr Lovatt.

"Too much feed is being used and wasted. Farmers should be looking to body condition score their ewes and analyse home-produced feeds before they start feeding."

Dr Lovatt, who runs the sheep veterinary consultancy business, Flock Health Ltd and currently chairs the Sheep Veterinary Society also hit out at the amount of money producers spend on antibiotics, pointing out that preventative vaccinations are a always better option than curatives.

"Up to 97% of our sheep farms have footrot, so I don't believe the UK has a high health status although I wouldn't say that outwith the farming community.

"As much as two thirds of all antibiotics used in the sheep industry are used to treat lameness, yet, only 16% of the national flock is vaccinated for footrot. If more than 2% of your ewe flock is lame, it is better to vaccinate.

"It is also better and cheaper to vaccinate for Enzootic abortion than use antibiotics to reduce the risk of abortion – Every cost should be seen as an investment."

She encouraged producers to plan, prevent and protect their sheep from disease by having as much of a closed flock as possible and only buying sheep in from accredited flocks.

"The biggest threat to your flock is other people's sheep, because if you don't have any disease at present, you are only one or two purchases away from buying it in."

Dr Lovatt added that several viral diseases are on the increase and that flockmasters need to increase their biosecurity.

"Maedi Visnae is definitely increasing and can have a massive knock on effect when you won't see clinical signs until 50% of the flock is infected."

Ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma (OPA), also known as jaagsiekte, also appears to be on the increase, with one farmer from the North of England, pointing out he had culled his entire flock of commercial Beltex, Texel and Charollais cross ewes, after being advised by his vet. He also hit out at the problem of sourcing new stock when there is no accurate test or vaccine for this transmissible lung tumour.

Outwith the health status of the UK sheep flock, Sarah Baker, AHDB senior analyst said sheep farmers will have to take advantage of environmental schemes.

"Change is coming so you need to know the impact of Brexit on your business," she said.

"There will be trade friction when we leave the EU – with or without a deal – and if we leave without a deal we could face tariffs of 40-50% which are totally uncompetitive resulting in oversupply of our home market."

Instead, Ms Baker encouraged producers to strive to be the best at what they are good at.

"Performance figures show that the top 25% of sheep farms not only survive but also thrive, so you will have to look at the public good payments which will become increasingly important for all farmers."

She said that the top performing farms minimise their overheads by sharing machinery or they specialise in what they do. They work out their costs of production, set goals and budgets and continually re-examine what they are doing. And, they understand the market place, attend monitor farm meetings and have a mindset for change where change is needed, with the result being the top 25% of sheep farmers can bring in £60,000-£70,000 more than the average.