Pulling the wool over our eyes

posted in: Wales | 2
Sheep, sheep, everywhere...
Sheep, sheep, everywhere…

Harri bought me a copy of George Monbiot‘s new book, Feral, for my birthday; however, despite loving the author’s idea of creating a space in our modern world where the wild can once again flourish (in individuals as well as our natural landscapes), I have to admit I struggled with the first few chapters and eventually put it aside.

This week Harri picked it up and, being a voracious reader, he read it in three days, during which he entertained me with odd snippets, mostly about sheep but he also read out some pretty sobering facts about farming subsidies.


Jumping for joy as the coffers are filled
Jumping for joy as the coffers are filled

So… finding myself home alone a few nights ago and too exhausted after interval training to do anything useful , I decided to take another look at Feral. This time, instead of starting at the beginning, I headed straight for the chapter titled ‘Sheepwrecked’; I needed to know why George Monbiot dislikes sheep so much that he frequently refers to them as ‘woolly maggots’ and the ‘white plague’. (Monbiot has also published an article of the same name on his website).

Monbiot believes we have ‘a national obsession with sheep… in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside… Britain is being shagged by sheep, but hardly anyone dares say so.’

This was mind-boggling stuff, more so because I’ve always had rather a soft spot for sheep. When we’re out hiking, I spend an inordinate amount of time photographing them while Harri disappears into the distance. Over the years, we’ve rescued several rather dumb individuals who’ve got themselves embroiled on barbed wire fencing and we’ve frequently had to reunite careless mothers with their recalcitrant (and noisy) lambs on opposite sides of a closed gate.


A ewe and her twins above Clodock in the Black Mountains
A ewe and her twins above Clodock in the Black Mountains

Wherever Harri and I hike in South Wales there are sheep. They graze in low-lying fields, perch precariously on cliff tops above Rhossili, wander the coast path near Pennard, stare out from high bracken and ravage the sparse grass of the mountain ridges. When you’re next out hiking in Wales, have a look around… there are sheep everywhere.

Over recent years, I’ve found myself pondering why there are quite so many sheep in Wales. I don’t know anyone who actually eats mutton, the lamb chops in supermarket fridges are invariably from New Zealand and I’m certain someone on Farming Today recently said a fleece is worth just pennies. If no-one any longer wants to eat them or sheer them, what exactly were all these sheep for?

Well, thanks to George Monbiot, I now know.

Call me naive but until I read ‘Sheepwrecked’, I had no idea of the eye-watering amounts of public cash paid out to landowners who have livestock such as sheep grazing on their land.

It wasn’t a growing demand for wool or mutton that was behind the massive growth in the sheep population from 1950 to 1999, but the lure of a lucrative passive income; in other words, farming subsidies.

Until 2003, farmers received a grant for every sheep they owned, every single one of them. From the Second World War onwards, this system of calculating subsidies encouraged farmers to increase the size of their flocks unchecked, leading to a huge increase in the number of sheep in Wales. Monbiot writes that by 1999 there were 11.6 million sheep in Wales, collectively having a massive and hugely detrimental impact on the land they grazed freely.

George Monbiot reveals some astounding statistics: ‘According to the 2010 figures, the average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills is £53,000. Average net farm income is £33,000. The contribution the farmer makes to his income by keeping animals, in other words, is minus £20,000.’

Whoever’d have thought it? While I viewed sheep as cute additions to the landscape, the farmers had an altogether more mercenary outlook. Sheep might look like dozy, woolly creatures but in the farming world, they represent a low-maintenance money magnet.


Some of the 'woolly maggots' we've encountered on our travels
Some of the ‘woolly maggots’ we’ve encountered on our travels

Have an empty bedroom in your rented home of thirty years and dare to claim housing benefit and this government treats you like a leper.  Own several hundred hectares of mountainside, toss a few thousand sheep onto the slopes and sit back and watch the pounds roll in. Not individual pounds, not the two-figure weekly benefit cuts that will inevitably drive many low-income families out of their homes, but thousands of them… hundreds of thousands of them if you’re already wealthy enough to own great swathes of the UK. If ever there was a get rich-quick scheme it’s owning sheep!

It doesn’t matter if no-one wants to eat mutton or buy woolly fleeces, the mere existence of sheep is enough to get the money.

The number of sheep in Wales has apparently dropped to around 8.2 million (2010) since headage payments ceased in 2003, but sheep ownership remains a hugely profitable business for anyone who owns land (Defra hands over £197 per hectare per year to livestock farmers).

There is a disgraceful duplicity exhibited by a Coalition Government which fights tooth and nail (with Germany) against EU proposals to cap single farm payment subsidies at 300,000 euros (£257,000) a year while doggedly pursuing policies to cut the incomes of the poorest in society.

Worse, as well as diverting public money from the general population to the hands of a few, sheep farming has a devastating effect on the environment. There is little sheep won’t eat and their extensive grazing of the UK’s upland areas has effectively wiped out the majority of habitats and wildlife once associated with mountain landscapes.  And once the vegetation disappears, so soil erosion escalates, bringing with it problems with landslides and flooding.

George Monbiot again:

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.

In both Wales and the Lake District I’ve heard how keeping sheep in unsuitable places – slopes subject to high levels of erosion, where grazing is extremely damaging to water retention and wildlife – is sustained only as a result of the extra money the farmers there receive from Pillar 2 payments. Another splendid result for nature.

In fact, the less suitable for farming an area is, the more money you receive for farming there. Under the new rules, you can now receive an extra payment of €450 a hectare for keeping livestock (which mostly means sheep) on mountains. Goodbye watersheds, goodbye soil, goodbye wildlife.

George Monbiot is a zoologist and a man who cares passionately about the environment; he knows what he’s talking about and I intend to continue reading Feral. Yet I feel saddened by his writing.


Lazing around while land owners see the money pouring in
Lazing around while land owners see the money pouring in

I always imagined the majestic mountains of Wales were one place you could escape overt consumerism and greed; now I know differently and I feel pretty dumb for not working it out before.

Sheep farming is a complete waste of public funds and it wrecks the environment to boot. I don’t think I’ll ever look at sheep in the same light again.


2 Responses

  1. thewalkerswife

    We didn’t realise the extent of the subsidies either, Joan. It’s quite shocking that the farming subsidies actively encourage over-grazing by sheep, destruction of woodlands and soil erosion. Makes you think that successive governments have been more interested in ensuring wealthy landowners get their huge payouts than protecting the environment, doesn’t it?

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