More than 80% of the sheepmeat consumed in Britain could end up being imported from countries using methods that wouldn’t be allowed here, making our sheep farmers the 'sacrificial lambs' of post-Brexit trade deals.

Pleading with the UK Government not to confirm its 'in principle' trade agreement with Australia until a proper assessment can be made of its long term impact on domestic producers, the National Sheep Association has warned that sheep farming superpower New Zealand is next in line for negotiations, and has already signalled that it wants the same terms.

The Agreement In Principle with Australia outlines Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs), which for lamb will more than triple immediately from roughly 8000 tonnes annually to 25,000, and then grow over ten years to 125,000 tonnes – which at current consumption rates is equivalent to more than 40% of the UK’s total sheepmeat needs.

NSA pointed out that the New Zealand trade minister is on the record stating that its trade deal must be similar to that of Australia. As the NZ sheepmeat quota is already 110,000 tonnes, UK sheep farmers have a lot to fear from the precedent being set with Australia – applying the same percentage increases to NZ sheepmeat imports produces a worst-case scenario where more than 80% of sheepmeat consumed in Britain would be imported.

Association chief executive Phil Stocker said: “NSA warned from day one that the UK sheep sector could end up being the sacrificial lamb for the benefit of other industries in a trade deal and Ministers could still step in to ensure this doesn’t happen.

"We should be looking at carcase equivalent volumes rather than the option to fill quota with a limited range of cuts, and we should also consider seasonal limits to avoid clashing with our peak production months.

“UK sheep farmers also need assurances that in case of market disruption quotas could be halted," insisted Mr Stocker. "At a time when farmers are being required to be more profitable, maintaining good and stable prices will be an important part of achieving this. There is also very different understanding of the meaning of equivalence of standards and NSA’s view is that this should boil down to what the public and the Government want and expect of our farmers.

"If there are things required of us here, then it’s not unreasonable to require the same from those entering our market," he stressed.

Trade deals should benefit both sides, said Mr Stocker, and while it was highly unlikely that the UK would be exporting sheepmeat to either Australia or New Zealand, there was demand in both countries for UK sheep genetics – trade in embryos and semen: "Yet we note a clause that allows each nation to apply health and phytosanitary controls and there is concern that Australia will now use this to maintain their unjustified ban on breeding material from UK as part of the Small Ruminant Rule," he added.