SHEEP AND LAMBS
Yarns and guidelines
Spinning plant fibres
NOTE ON ACRYLICS
Checked and updated August 2021
An image often encouraged 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.....
Sheep are not native to Britain or Western Europe. Their ancestors originated in Mesopotamia where they 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 market, farming became even bigger business. At this time, industrialisation in the towns provoked a big increase in demand for meat so that eventually in the UK sheep meat replaced wool as the main product of sheep farming.
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 almost nothing but sheep, the latest 'invaders'. Throughout 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
The following is mainly about 'how we got here', since government subsidies which have framed farming practices since WW2 have now drastically changed (January 2021).
Sheep farming in the hills would never have developed as it has in recent decades without massive inputs of public money in the form of cash subsidies to farmers. From 2004 until Brexit, these were paid on the basis of acreage (and to a lesser extent on land husbandry) rather than numbers of animals reared for food, as was previously the case. It is not known exactly how farms will develop under the new post-Brexit Agriculture and Trade Bills, but the powerful lobbying of the NFU, the Countryside Alliance and other heritage-type organisations and businesses in the Tory heartlands of Britain must not be under-estimated. Sadly each form of subsidy actually increased the relentless cutting back of natural vegetation. Farmers have invested in machinery which helps clear scrub and expand the area that qualified for subsidies.
Only land 'suitable for farming' qualified, whilst scrub vegetation cover was 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 could have been released for other purposes (see below) and life-saving 'rewilding' – or perhaps more sustainable types of farming or tourist activities - could have begun earlier, in many parts of UK uplands.
The farming lobby has claimed 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).
EBLEX ('The organisation for the English beef and sheep industry') in their defence of livestok farming on the hills, a few years ago commissioned an independent report Landscapes without Livestock which examined 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:
I do not see that as a tragedy - quite the opposite! People might miss seeing the animals. But in the cause of mitigating devastating floods and climate catastrophe, 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
With the UK now having left the EU, changes in farm subsidy arrangements have been passed into law. The Farming Minister at the time of the 2016 Referendum was himself in favour of leaving the EU, on the basis of the claim that the UK could provide similar amounts of subsidies internally. We shall see!
The 2020 Agriculture Bill
Passed by the UK parliament in November 2020, the mantra of the bill is 'public money for public good'. Though disappointing in some important ways, it is certainly a landmark piece of legislation and on the surface appears to be nothing but a step forward. For upland sheep farming it is certainly a big step in the right direction. Farmers will be subsidised on the basis of environmental improvements they achieve, rather than for their land itself. Farms which are commercially unsustainable will have to diversify and in some cases farmers will be helped to retire or enter a different profession.
However...after much lobbying, animal welfare standards were included in the bill - but are not included in trade deals. There is no legislation to prevent bad practice which affects the environment, though an Environmental Protection bill is currently going through parliament (July 2021).
More crucially (and in the case of sheep this will apply to lowland sheep) farms will still be rewarded for 'productivity', which will almost certainly lead to intensification. In fact this bill will most likely not make any difference at all to the UK's growing number of 'mega farms' (beef, dairy and eggs) which are already making good profits. The UK Environmental Protection bill is still going through parliament, as is the more recently written Animal Welfare bill (July 2021).
There will be a seven year 'transition period' when the government may pay subsidies as it did before the split from Europe in December 2020 (as it is still doing for hill farmers of sheep).
Sheep population explosion in recent times and its consequences
'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 Monbiot.com)
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.
Hill farming of sheep could not have continued as it has without these subsidies. For instance in Wales, according to George Monbiot (op cit, 2014) the average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills was £53,000 whilst their average net farm income was £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 could often be heard in interviews on Radio 4 farming programmes.
So, as well as being environmentally damaging, upland sheep farming was an economic disaster.
If you are curious, theoretically you can check on CAP payments made in your area on the DEFRA website at http://www.cap-payments.defra.gov.uk/ .
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 from farms. 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.' http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-2743.2007.00120.x/abstract
For an up-to-date summary of the state of rivers in the UK, see
Many people in farming communities in Britain have suffered from the deadly organo-phosphate ingredient of sheep dip, which was COMPULSORY until 1992! (that particular ingredient is now banned.) Farmers suffered from serious neurological and psychological illnesses (including periods of paralysis) during this period. And sheep dip continues to be poisonous.
The Wool Industry
The first process needed in processing raw sheep wool is scouring - these days there are only two scouring plants left in the UK, though there were many more in the days when wool was the main product from sheep. 30% - 40% of waste from the scouring plant is grease, and to remove this large quantities of hot water and chemicals are needed. When the product of the scouring plant reaches the textile mill, the softest and most durable wools are treated in a strong acid which removes the 'scales' from the fibres, and / or the wool is 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.
'Carbon capture' is now accepted as an essential part of what must be done in order to avert the worst predictions of the climate catastrophe. Planting trees increases the amount of carbon held in the soil, and mature trees themselves are a living carbon store - whereas most 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 (see the highest red dot below). Their wool has minimal economic value so is not included in the chart. 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 peterharper.org.
“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 catastrophe 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.
The devastating floods in Yorkshire and Cumbria of December 2015 show this very clearly and, worse, government measures to 'control' flooding are often irrelevant because they do not tackle the root of the problem. Climate catastrophe is behind recent extreme weather events of course, but locally flooding is worsened when the upland water catchment areas are cleared for sheep grazing, when drainage channels are dug, and when 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 able 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 seems to be 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.
Fortunately, things have moved on since 2014 and the wider picture has been more clearly identified and has at last slowly started to be addressed. However, until recently there seemed to be a certain denial of grazing as a cause of flooding, rather as there used to be a denial of climate change itself. In 2017 a huge tree planting scheme, funded by Natural England (a public body sponsored by the government) and supported by the Woodland Trust (a charity) started in Cumbria in the moorland which is the catchment area for the Lancashire rivers which have flooded badly in recent years. Lancaster University is researching the project and expects to prove that tree planting can help prevent flooding downstream. The two things that I noticed when this was reported in BBC Farming Today (February 2018) were that 1) the farmers had needed a lot of persuading (!) and 2) it was never mentioned that in fact the denudation and soil impaction of the moorland was actually caused by over-grazing in the first place, especially in the days of government grants per head of sheep. Tree cover was the natural and original vegetation of moorland up to 500m above sea level.
As at February 2019, there are now a number of large scale experiments in tree planting as flood defence in the UK and the method has been acknowledged to be successful economically as well as environmentally.
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. It is also claimed by farmers and others that upland pastures are not suitable for any other type of farming. But 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. There could also be an increase of area supporting leisure industries such as walking, climbing, wildlife expeditions and natural history interests of all kinds. With the Agriculture Bill there is now legislation to support such changes, and if the strategy works, the turnaround has to be welcomed.
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 often find sheep, and 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.
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, prior to Brexit, farming contributed £400 million, walking contributed £500+ million, and wildlife based activity contributed £1,900 million. It is extremely hard for researchers to calculate costs and benefits of particular types of environments but these figures were published by the UK Government's National Eccosystems Assessment in the years preceding Brexit (now relocated but see http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Home/tabid/38/Default.aspx).
The figures speaks for themselves. Activities other than farming have already overtaken the economy of the LFAs in Wales, whilst 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 http://www.monbiot.com/2017/10/06/the-meat-of-the-matter/)
The arguments against overgrazing and monoculture have been well known amongst environmentalists for decades but only more recently with the growing awareness of the climate and environment catastrophe has the damage of livestock farming come into the wider picture.
The Agriculture Bill is to be welcomed even though it addresses only part of the problem. In the wider picture, it is now clear that part of what's needed is to reduce drastically our dependence on animals for food and commodities. Not to mention the added benefit that the shocking increase in the common 'degenerative diseases' that we now see can actually be reversed with a plant based diet, as abundantly shown by science and by experience. Sadly the change-over so far is proving all too slow for the animals and for the environment.