Shorn of Sheep: Unveiling the problems of sheep farming in Wales

June 17, 2023
6 mins read
White Welsh mountain sheep

Ask the Welsh what their nation is best known for and they might say male voice choirs, rugby, and dragons. Ask literally anyone else in the UK and they’d say sheep. Not wanting to deploy a lazy stereotype, but as of November 2022, there were 9.3 million sheep in Wales. For comparison, there were 3.1 million people in Wales at that time. Around 3 sheep per person seems a touch excessive. Not least because no one wears wool anymore. Approximately 80% of the Welsh land mass is used for sheep farming.

80 is a lot of percent, Dafydd!

Indeed, and worse, much of Wales is defined by the central and devolved government as a ‘less favourable area’ (LFA.) Yes, this pertains to agriculture but still, ouch! In fact, 80% of Wales is an LFA – and you thought you had problems. Circumstantially, Wales is wetter and hillier than the rest of the UK and hence it relies heavily on sheep farming. Because sheep don’t mind sideways rain and it being as hilly as fuck.

I’m afraid we need to talk about sheep in Wales (and Western meat consumption generally, but one moussaka at a time).

What’s wrong with sheep farming?

Broadly speaking, farming is hard graft for not a whole lot of (financial) reward. Farmers’ suicide rates are sobering, and according to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution’s (RABI) Big Farming Survey in 2021, ‘almost half of the farming community are experiencing some form of anxiety.’ This suggests that pastoral life is not quite as idyllic as children’s books would have you believe.

Aside from being an extremely hard way to make a living (in 2021-2022 the average lowland sheep farm income was £26,500), sheep farming has a number of effects on Wales’ beautiful land. It affects biodiversity (negatively,) causes soil erosion (the least sexy of all the environmental ills), and increases soil salinity (ok, that’s the least sexy of the ills) as well as hefty contributions to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which are bad because they’re heating up our ailing climate. Wales’ economy is highly dependent on agriculture, and therefore, highly vulnerable to climate change. 

The emissions of any given sheep include methane (from enteric fermentation), nitrous oxide, lime, fertiliser manufacture, feed production, energy use, manure, and bedding. Hill sheep are also slightly higher emitters than lowland sheep, which adds insult to the injury of worse weather. 

The 2019 State of Nature Report makes for a depressing read: Wales came 224th out of 240 for biodiversity intactness. It found that agricultural management and climate change were two of the biggest threats to nature; given that sheep farming has hooves in both of those hotspots, this is problematic. 

Methane is the ultimate low-hanging fruit of GHG emission reductions because it is super potent and we can eat things other than lamb koftas. There’s also the ugly truth that imposing restrictions on Welsh sheep farmers is way easier than tackling emissions from aviation or fossil fuels because, whilst sheep farmers have the softest hands (from the lanolin,) they don’t have great lawyers. Bulldozing those with less agency is frankly just an easier win for the environmental movement.

Mitigating mutton

Entirely altruistically, there is much (corporate agriculture-funded) research presently being undertaken to find a way to reduce livestock emissions. Bovaer® is big bovine news with methane reductions of up to 41%. Sheep (especially upland ones) are idiosyncratic, meaning mitigations are trickier to implement (they do not trot in for twice-daily milking,) but some of these technologies are showing potential – a recent Centre for Innovative Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) study demonstrated a carbon footprint reduction of 49% and 68% respectively at two test case hill farms which sound interesting but it’s hard to say if these mitigations will be dramatic enough to enable the UK livestock industry to reach net zero by 2050. Not to mention, the further movement towards a feedlot system for livestock, where animals are raised in confinement and fed imported crops such as corn and soy, comes at the expense of animal welfare and pushes demand for those monoculture feed crops and deforestation like that which we see in the Amazon rainforest. Pigouvian taxes, where you pay additional tax for buying a product with adverse side effects, are surprisingly also applicable to sheep. These would penalize meat eating – much like the UK’s sugar tax – and revenues could be re-invested to research climate mitigation technologies. 

The reality, regrettably which we all have to contend with, is that the only meaningful way for sheep farming to reduce its carbon footprint is to increase ‘production efficiency’ (CIEL: Net Zero Carbon & UK Livestock Report, April 2022). This includes reducing the age of first lambing, increasing the lambing rate, and enabling a high growth rate. This does not sound fun and it seems a bit unreasonable that teenage sheep mums are the best we can come up with. 

There are some incredible sheep farmers trying really hard to do right by nature and the environment. Oak Farm in Oxfordshire, England has undertaken an intensive conservation programme to rewild, afforest and restore nature on their land. Additionally, Tir Natur is a Welsh organisation that seeks to reconcile farmers and conservationists – because the two groups have beef/Hoggett. There are lots of great people doing great work. However, the really hard truth may be that these laudable initiatives just are not sufficient to meaningfully reduce human impact on the planet.

The Mutton industry is a bedrock of the Welsh economy. Image: Sky News

We need Bovine intervention

One sensible suggestion is for wealthy nations of the Global North to legislate for plant-based diets. This could be through rationing animal products, restricting the sale of sausage rolls, and mass education programmes about why dietary change can help the climate crisis. This may seem unfair to the Welsh sheep farmers and the British livestock industry in general but there is an uncomfortable truth that needs confronting. We made a much larger portion of the climate mess; we continue to make more mess; so we need to shoulder something approaching a proportionate share of cleaning up the mess. Consider it a tiny reparation for the centuries of plunder that the North has broadly inflicted on the South.

Also, according to Chris Reynolds, Professor of Animal and Dairy Science, the University of Reading, “the biggest opportunities for reducing emissions intensity are currently in developing countries”, which reinforces the notion that livestock should be the preserve of the places that’ve had a historically shit deal – those in the Global South – and that the Global North is less nutritionally dependent on animal products for population health.

So, what if, all things considered, we just can’t have sheep farming anymore? What will those farmers do for a living? Funny you should ask, but you know who would make top-notch custodians of the land…? The very same people who already manage it: farmers. We would need to pay them a fair living wage – something sheep farming doesn’t – which would demonstrate a genuine commitment to farmers and the land. We need strategies that compensate, retrain and support livestock farmers to transition to new roles that help the ailing environment, rather than continue to injure it.

We must distinguish (wearing our corporate bullshit detectors) between farmers – almost all of whom need meaningful support in our messed-up food system – and the voices of Big Agriculture using the emotive ‘poor farmers’ motif to enable them to continue to make lots of money. We must also cease our ‘business as usual’ mindset in agriculture and society more widely. In the vast scheme of private, public and systemic changes required to save the Earth (no Elon, we cannot all relocate to the moon) calling ‘time’ on sheep farming isn’t the largest inconvenience we’re going to face.

I’m starting with the man in the mouflon

If you are Welsh and/or your income is sheep-dependent, you may feel I’m lacking in compassion. It’s important that we acknowledge that other people around the world are also deserving of our compassion – especially given they are already being heavily impacted by the climate crisis. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that ‘hundreds of millions of vulnerable people rely on livestock in a changing climate.’ Wealthy, high-emitting nations should feel obligated to step away from the shepherd’s pie. Eating a plant-based diet is not a magic legume, but it’s a brilliant place to start, and given gross historical inequities, it’s just that the West gets on the tempeh train first.

Lastly, a reminder that the farmers are the good guys here. They have just been following instructions and working their bollocks off in the post-WW2 agricultural architecture we’ve all benefited from. RABI cannot be the only ones picking up the pieces – we need to treat them with more compassion and gratitude for the labours they put in and help those who are able to, move to a more nature-friendly farming model. Away from livestock and towards plant-based, conservation, restoration, and stewardship – I can’t think of a group of people more qualified to manage this challenging transition and more deserving of a fair deal.


Emma Armstrong

Author of I Used to Think Vegans Were Dicks, naturalist and mouthy writer on the natural world. Emma is a naturalist who spent her twenties living (and toileting) in the woods, teaching bushcraft and survival skills to men. She has a love of trees, the natural world and upsetting people - but only people who deserve it. Proficient at gutting bunnies, burning trees and digging latrines but guilt-ridden about the above owing to the climate emergency. Despite being handy with an axe, even she knows we can’t survive as a species if we keep breaking everything.

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