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Checked and updated 14 March 2017
Environment harm

Enduring myths
Farming today
Ecological issues
Subsidies or sustainability
Climate change

The myth

The image given in the media of sheep farmers, particularly upland sheep farmers, is that they represent a long and noble tradition, optimally using the natural resources of their hill farms (for what else would grow on the hills?), maintaining the ancient landscape for us, safeguarding biodiversity, tending their animals with all good shepherdly love and compassion, and fighting for their traditional way of life despite poverty and hardship. Some of this is partly true and it goes without saying that I have no personal enmity towards them. But think again, and think whether sheep farming as it is today is a comparatively recent tradition, think about environmental destruction, the causes of flooding, the question of sustainability, and find out how it's mostly paid for by public money.....


woolpackSheep are not native to Britain or Western Europe. Their ancestors originated in Mesopotamia and were amongst the first animals to be domesticated. The Romans were the first to start an organised wool industry in Britain, but the industry really took off much later, in the 12th century. Then in the 14th century, after the Black Death when there were literally not enough people left to farm the land, open farming land ('strip farming') began to be enclosed and sheep farming virtually took over in some areas. Wool soon became a major export. Our vocabulary is full of words and phrases related to the wool industry and that's partly why we are so attached to it!

"Sheep have eaten up our meadows and our downs Our corn, our wood, whole villages and towns” 
wrote Thomas Tusser in the 16th century.  “Might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb” is still a common phrase and it was only as recently as the early 19th century that hanging for stealing a sheep was taken out of the statute. What all this shows is how for generations the enclosure of common land for the mercantile grazing of sheep caused desperate poverty.

Enclosure and Railways 

In the 18th and 19th centuries sheep were increasingly used as an instrument for English Enclosure, whereby common land was taken away from villages. Similarly, enclosing land for sheep farming figured in the equally ruthless Scotish Clearances. In the name of efficiency the land was rigorously enclosed by scheming aristocrats and successive Acts of Parliament so that in general farms became larger. Then in the 19th century with the coming of the railways and consequent widening of the fresh food market, farming became even more big business.  


In the 20th century refrigeration also helped to globalise markets and some farmers became extremely wealthy. Grain was also needed of course, so by and large, mixed farming on a relatively small scale was the norm in most areas of the UK until the second half of the 20th century (though there were local specialities). 

Farming Today - Ecological issues

Monoculture is one of the worst enemies of natural ecosystems, and sheep are one of the worst monocultures.

 “Because they were never part of our native ecosystem, the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep. In the uplands they rapidly deplete nutritious and palatable plants, leaving behind a remarkably impoverished flora: little beside moss, moor-grass and tormentil in many places. The sheep has caused more extensive environmental damage in this country than all the building that has ever taken place here.”
George Monbiot – Feral (Allen Lane, 2013) p.70

It's amazing that most people think our barren uplands are natural, although trees are really the natural vegetation of most of Britain except in the very highest mountains. The tree line at 57 degrees north – say, Aberdeen – is at 500m or 1,600ft (Wikipedia) - that's most of the way up most of our mountains.  Since ancient times when farming began in Britain, the dense forest of the uplands (supporting an amazing volume of biodiversity) was gradually replaced, because of animal husbandry, by open forest, then by scrub, heath and long grasses, and finally by just grass, which supports the least plant and animal life, in fact supports virtually nothing but sheep, the latest 'invaders'. Barren hillsThroughout most of the 20th century farmers (most of the tree cover having already been removed) were still draining bogs and clearing scrub in order to make more grazing land - even though the deeper (taller) the vegetation, the more wildlife can be supported and the more protection afforded against global warming.  It must be said that in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the main culprit is overstocking of deer rather than sheep, though sheep do play their part of course in places where deer are not needed by the shooting classes.

Because of sheep farming, short grass and stubble are all that remain in most upland and hill farming areas of England and Wales. The tracts of heather moorland which we so love are not 'natural' and exist only because the landowners make lots of money from shooting parties, and so they conserve the heather by burning (and by keeping sheep off it) in order to protect the game birds, which they themselves breed. Heather looks lovely but supports very few species and is itself an artificial monoculture.

It is a myth encouraged partly by the powerful farmers' union that upland farming encourages biodiversity. Somehow farming has become sacrosanct in the public imagination, and farmers are rarely challenged publicly.

The march of progress

Farming could not exist without subsidies of public money, and since 2004 the subsidies have been paid on the basis of acreage rather than numbers of animals, as was previously the case. It is not known what form subsidies will take when the UK is outside the Common Agricultural Policy, but doubtless subsidies will continue on a similar level, given the powerful lobby of the NFU, the Countryside Alliance and other lobbying organisations and businesses in the Tory heartlands of Britain. Sadly each form of subsidy has actually increased the relentless cutting back of natural vegetation. Farmers now invest in machinery which helps clear scrub and expand the area that qualifies for subsidies. Only land 'suitable for farming' qualifies, whilst scrub vegetation cover is seen as the enemy. In reality, scrub represents the reversal of the process of environment degradation, whereas the tidy green fields beloved of the tourist industry do not encourage biodiversity. If we and the markets of Europe and the far east were not addicted to meat, or even if we ate what is now known to be the least unhealthy amount of meat, large stretches of farm land which are now used for grazing or growing fodder might be released for other purposes (see below) and life-saving 'rewilding' – or perhaps different types of farming - could begin in many parts of UK uplands.
The farming lobby claims that undergrazing of traditional pastures would lead to loss of biodiversity, with a return to bracken etc, but this is incorrect. Depending on what model is used of course, with sensible management it would certainly be much richer. Additionally, restoring vegetation prevents flooding and allows natural watercourses to return (see below).

One organisation, set up to support livestock industries, defends hill farming and even goes so far as to model a landscape without sheep in unfavourable terms:
EBLEX ('The organisation for the English beef and sheep industry') commissioned an independent report Landscapes without Livestock which examines the potential impact on some of England’s most cherished landscapes if beef cattle herds and sheep flocks declined or disappeared. Here is part of the North York Moors as it is now:
NYM now
and here is a sheepless landscape projected 30 years from now:
NYM 30 years on
I do not see that as a tragedy - quite the opposite! People might miss seeing the animals. But in the cause of averting catastrophic floods and climate change, they could get used to it - especially if the English Tourist Board turned away from advertising the supposedly traditional landscapes of Britain and instead promoted more environment friendly country pursuits, including interest in the wild plants and animals that would return to a landscape once the sheep were removed.
But powerful forces defend 'traditional' farming. Historically, many parliamentarians have been farmers and landowners, and the National Farmers Union (NFU), governed by the biggest & richest landowners, is very powerful in rural policy making today.  “The land is controlled by a very small class of people in this country, and that class is the most hostile to wildlife of any people in the UK. But as agricultural subsidies go, that grip on the land will ease, particularly in the uplands where there’s no economic case for farming without substantial subsidies. And without subsidies, they’ll take the sheep off, which is the key."
(Monbiot in Earthmatters, Friends of the Earth, Summer 2013)

Subsidies or sustainability

It is uncertain what will eventually happen regarding farm subsidies, but since the UK is now in the process of leaving the EU, changes in farm subsidy arrangements will certainly happen. The Farming Minister at the time of the 2016 Referendum was actually in favour of leaving the EU, on the basis that the UK could certainly provide similar amounts of subsidies internally, though his ministerial colleagues did not agree.

Here is a quote from the Chairman of the NFU's Livestock Board ( July 2016)
"Livestock farming is unfortunately subject to a lack of profitability"
Of course it is, since the livestock industry produces what we don't need and the public expects to buy it at prices which do not reflect the true cost. In fact, 55 per cent of UK total income from farming comes from CAP support.

Farm subsidies (via the EU) cost the UK billions of pounds each year, the equivalent of 400 for every household at the time of writing. This will inevitably change, possibly even in the near future, and certainly when the UK is not part of the crazy Common Agriculture Policy. But government subsidies to farming, along with market protection, have a long history, mostly dating from the shortages of the Second World War, after which the government granted subsidies to farmers on an unprecedented scale. The CAP has brought us many things since the 1980s, including the wine lakes and butter mountains, the 'quotas' and now the unfair and inefficient Single Payments

Population explosion

'Sheep are a fully automated system for environmental destruction. Once they are released into the hills, no further human agency is required to prevent ecological recovery.'
(George Monbiot's submission to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry: The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum. See

After WW2, with the increase of subsidies from public money, the size of sheep flocks escalated sharply. There seems to have been approximately a threefold increase in sheep numbers and a commensurate increase in the size of flocks during the second part of the 20th century. Prior to 2004, subsidies were paid to farmers on the basis of how many animals they kept, but since that time the subsidies are paid in accordance with how much land is farmed.

This of course made farm land in the UK even more expensive, and likely to be sold to dukes, sheiks and investors as far afield as India and China (    )
Ironically, the payments are given partly for ‘avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land’ i.e. avoiding the return of wild plants – they don’t have to grow anything to get the money, they just have to keep the land clear! In fact the 2005 guidance stated that grasslands and pastures with more than 50 trees per hectare were not eligible for funding. (1 hectare = roughly 2.5 acres)

But in order to support farmers with less land (who might want to diversify) and to cut down the tax burden, surely it would be sensible simply to put a ceiling on the amount of land eligible for funding. The UK government argued against this in the 2011 negotiations on the grounds that ‘consolidation’ encourages competitiveness. Echoes of Enclosure!
Hill farming of sheep could not exist without subsidies. For instance in Wales, according to George Monbiot (op cit) the average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills is 53,000 whilst their average net farm income is 33,000. (Monbiot obtained these figures from the Aberystwyth University Institute of Environmental & Rural Sciences 2011 report). And this pattern is played out in hill farms in other parts of the UK as I have frequently heard in interviews on Radio 4 farming programmes.
So, as well as being environmentally damaging, upland sheep farming is an economic disaster.
If you are curious you can check on CAP payments made in your area on the DEFRA website at .


In almost all the upland areas of the UK, the rivers are in poor ecological condition, mainly because of nitrates and phosphates entering the water.  Pollution from farms is a major contributor to the destruction of biodiversity, not only of plants but of animals too. Sheep dip residues (see Sheep and Lambs) have been found in nearly 90% of the rivers surveyed in England and Wales, and sheep mix solutions contain particularly damaging pesticides. (P.J. Johnes at al, 2007, 'Land use scenarios for England and Wales: evaluation of management options to support “good ecological status” in surface freshwaters', Soil Use and Management, vol 23 (suppl.1), pp. 176-94. Courtesy of George Monbiot op cit.)

You can find the abstract of the above research online, and it states '…..Key trends indicate the importance of animal agriculture as a contributor to the total diffuse agricultural nutrient loading on waters, and the need to bring these sources under control if conditions suitable for sustaining ‘Good Ecological Status’ under the Water Framework Directive are to be generated.' 

Many people in farming communities in Britain have suffered from the deadly organo-phosphate ingredient of sheep dip, which was COMPULSORY until 1992! (it is now banned.) In November 2015 a group of UK farmers is still lobbying for recognition of the serious neurological and psychological illnesses they have suffered (including periods of paralysis). And sheep dip continues to be poisonous - how could it be otherwise?

The Wool Industry

The softest and most durable wools are treated in a strong acid which removes the 'scales' from the fibres, and / or they have been treated by coating the fibres with a polymer which prevents the scales from attaching to each other and causing shrinkage / 'felting'. That's not to mention the dyes..... The commercial preparation and spinning of wool is not in itself an environment friendly chain of processes.The 'carbon footprint' of wool is not negligible, especially when it originates from very distant parts of the world. The Plant fibres page has information about the processing of other types of yarn and it must be acknowledged that in some cases these also have quite a considerable carbon footprint, though overall, less so than wool.

Climate change

'Carbon capture' is now accepted as an essential part of what we must do in order to mitigate climate change. Planting trees increases the amount of carbon held in the soil, and trees themselves are a living carbon store - whereas grassland 'locks' less carbon in the land.

As well as carbon capture, there is the issue of emissions from the sheep themselves. A sheep's digestion produces harmful amounts of methane gas, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Like cattle, sheep are ruminants, which means that they belch out methane in the long process of regurgitating and re-chewing their fibrous food. Meat from sheep has the highest global warming potential (GWP) of any meat produced in Britain. (Cranfield University DEFRA project report IS0205 2006 - search the title to download)

You can see from the graph below that the greenhouse emissions from sheep are quite out of proportion to the food they contribute, relative to other forms of meat, but the amount of land they take up is astronomical! (Their wool has minimal economic value.) The graph is taken from LAND USE IN ZERO CARBON BRITAIN 2030, a summary, by Peter Harper, University of Bath. This can be downloaded from his page on

And the transport required for several journeys between markets and inevitably to the slaughterhouse, uses large amounts of fuel (not to mention the fuel used by the slaughterhouse itself, and refrigeration, transport and storage afterwards).

“The only wide tracts of upland Britain not grazed to the roots by sheep are those grazed to the roots by deer, in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Sheep farming in this country is a slow burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution. Yet scarcely anyone seems to have noticed.” Monbiot op cit p 158.


A major cause of flooding is the reduced water holding capacity of hills, causing the rain to sluice straight away into the valleys in stormy weather.

floodThe devastating floods in Yorkshire and Cumbria of December 2015 show this very clearly and, worse, government measures to 'control' flooding are largely irrelevant because they do not tackle the root of the problem. Climate change is behind recent extreme weather events of course, but locally the flooding happens when the upland water catchment areas are cleared for sheep grazing, drainage channels are dug, and rivers dredged. It is better management of the uplands, rather than flood barriers in the towns downstream, that is needed. But it's the local farmers and landowners who, as so often, call the tune. (BBC photo)

Sheep compact the soil and make it less likely to absorb rain. Water is sent down to the lowlands, with the effect being worsened by the drainage of boggy land and by drainage channels dug into the fields. Most importantly, where trees and shrubs exist in the uplands they absorb rain and release it gradually to the lowlands. Without tree cover, and especially on heavily grazed land, rain flows rapidly down the hills and streams and causes the lowlands to flood. To make matters worse, the same effect causes the land to dry out more quickly in the dryer season, which encourages drought.  This is not rocket science and I seem to remember it from school geography lessons as well as from the literature of environmental organisations over the years. In recent years we have seen these extremes played out dramatically. However (perhaps because farming is sacrosanct), during the 2013/14 flooding of the Somerset Levels, the mainstream media at first talked only of dredging the rivers and of hard engineering feats of 'water capture' whilst the elephant in the room stood by.

Only at the height of the flooding in February 2014 did the wider picture begin to be seen. This is an extract from the Express:
"A direct way of encouraging flood measures would be using the generous sums available from the Common Agriculture Policy money pot that each British family contributes 400 to annually.
The complexities of CAP allow farmers to receive subsidies of around 15billion. By diverting some of that cash into encouraging them to work with nature instead of against it, the countryside could be adapted to save thousands of homes downstream in a cost-effective way. Landscape measures could see the restoration of uplands, where natural vegetation such as heather slows down rainwater run-off, as well as reforesting so that the water-absorbing powers of trees could be harnessed in areas where hill farming is becoming increasingly less economic for farmers."

Battle lines over flooding are already starting to be drawn between farmers and environmentalists.

It is claimed that the nation 'needs' the meat product from the uplands, but if the result of upland grazing is a net loss of productive land in the lower lying areas, then sheep may actually be causing a loss of overall food production. Also, parts of the uplands themselves could be a source of food other than meat, with mixed horticulture of fruit and nut trees and vegetables which would prevent flooding and increase carbon capture. Upland areas could expand the areas supporting leisure industries such as walking, climbing, wildlife expeditions and natural history interests of all kinds.

Alternative thinking for the hills

Sheep are comparatively hardy creatures and can digest quite rough vegetation. They can be raised in harsh and unfavourable parts of the country. In areas officially classed as 'Least Favourable Areas (LFAs)' you will usually find sheep, and therefore many people are under the illusion that grazing is the only possibility for upland areas. The environmental problem is that sheep cause environmental harm of various kinds, and the economic problem is that the business is not profitable even with large modern herds.

"These (LFAs) are areas where farming is more difficult because of poor climate, soils and terrain, which in turn lead to lower yields and higher production and transportation costs. LFAs essentially define the upland hill-farming areas; they include almost all of the upland areas in the North of England (including the Pennines, Lake District and North York Moors), the Peak District, the English part of the English-Welsh border, Exmoor, Dartmoor, and parts of Cornwall. In England, 28% of beef cows and 41% of breeding sheep are on LFA grazing livestock farms"

Find the 'Hill Farming in England' Reports from Newcastle University's Rural Business Research Farm Business Survey on this page.

"The average LFA Grazing Livestock farm earns 65% of its total revenue (output) from crop and livestock farming activities, 20% comes from the Single Farm Payment, and 12% from specific agri-environment payments. The balance of revenues (4%) is earned from non- farm/diversification activities."”
(also from the Report mentioned above)

Wales might be used as an an example here, because a very high proportion of the Welsh countryside is classed as LFA. In the economy of Wales as a whole, farming contributes 400 million, walking contributes 500+ million, and wildlife based activity contributes 1,900 million. It is extremely hard for researchers to calculate costs and benefits of particular types of environments but you can see how this is done if you care to look at the on line publications of the UK Government commissioned National Ecosystems Assessment where if you are very persistent you should be able to verify the above:

birch treesThe figures speaks for themselves. Activities other than farming have already overtaken the economy of the LFAs in Wales, and other areas of Britain also have started the journey to alternative businesses which are kinder to the environment. In addition to rewilding, education and leisure activities, we might also like to see some fruit and vegetable growing for local markets.
George Monbiot in his book Feral (2013) has well thought out ideas for the future of the hills without sheep, taking account of the families of skilled shepherds (as opposed to the absentee farmers) who live there, and I recommend this book for its hard-hitting investigation and interpretation of the rural environment. (He also has views on meat eating - see

The arguments against overgrazing and monoculture have been well known in the environment movement for decades but only more recently with the growing awareness of climate change has the environmental damage of livestock farming come into the wider picture. More action is now desperately needed on all fronts if actual climate catastrophe is to be avoided. It's now clear that part of what's needed is to reduce drastically our dependence on animals for food and all other byproducts. Not too mention that the shocking increase in cancers and heart disease could be reversed, as has now been shown by science and experience.  Win win!

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