THE NATIONAL Sheep Association has hit back at a new study which recommends sheep farmers to ditch livestock for forestry.

New research from the University of Sheffield states British sheep farmers could make more money if they allow their land to naturally regenerate into forest and suggests that instead of relying on subsidies from the government they should be paid for carbon credits – for the volume of carbon dioxide the forest absorbs.

NSA has accused the research of being short-sighted, claiming that it doesn't account for the role of sheep farming in delivering public goods by creating wildlife habitats or managing grassland for meat production.

The study, published in the journal ‘Environmental Research Letters’, coincided with the Scottish Government's announcement of £150m in funding to increase new planting and expand Scotland's national forests.

Read more - Forestry to the fore of ScotGov rural spending

Lead author of the study and Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Sheffield, Colin Osbourne, said: “Sheep farming in the UK is not profitable without subsidies, but forests that sell carbon credits can be economically viable – so it makes sense for the government to help farmers transition.

“Using public money to actively prevent reforestation in the UK and Europe is morally questionable given the pressure western governments place on the global south to end tropical deforestation,” he continued.

“Ultimately, these come down to political questions of how we want our countryside to be used, how we value livestock production over the global costs of climate breakdown, and how the government supports farmers and rural communities.”

Chief Executive of the NSA, Phil Stocker highlighted what he believes are a number of ‘fundamental flaws’ by suggesting sheep farmers would be better off by planting forests.

“The report assumes all sheep farmers are still receiving the old style of subsidy but the reality is that farmers don’t get subsidies anymore,” Mr Stocker stressed. “They were withdrawn over 10 years ago with the transition to the basic payment scheme from previous production support. Since then farming businesses have received Government income, but in recognition for keeping land in good environmental and agricultural condition, and for doing specific environmental works through schemes such as Countryside Stewardship. This became a public investment in incentivising and rewarding good environmental land management,” he continued.

“We are now on the verge of another step in the evolution of farm support and are moving more clearly towards reward for ‘public goods’, things that farmers deliver and that society value but that can’t be recouped from the normal marketplace.”

NSA has also raised concerns that the new study ignores the national food strategy.

Mr Stocker continued: “To expect sheep farmers to give up farming sheep and plant forests ignores two basic facts; firstly sheep farming is more than just a business, it is part of our culture and heritage and farmers get huge pride and satisfaction from farming sheep; secondly, it’s really easy for scientists to justify the planting of forests through a carbon calculation alone because it is easy to measure how much carbon is in a tree and then apply an offset value. What these scientists ignore is that we have to look at land management on a multi- functional basis, not just one metric of carbon,” he explained.

“Our sheep farmers are managing one of our most precious resources – grassland – while also producing fantastic and nutritious food from it. Grassland builds and stores soil carbon (recent research from Rothamstead showed that soil quality was equally as good beneath grassland as it was beneath woodland), it creates wildlife habitats (the curlew, lapwing, skylark and barn owl are just a few rare birds that don’t live in forests), it enables people to improve their mental and physical wellbeing, and it avoids wildfires with their huge environmental consequences. In addition, sheep farming is at the core of many rural communities and economies, most of which the public benefit from and enjoy when they come to the countryside,” he concluded.