Irish Sheep Farming Sector

Irish Sheep Farming Sector

Full Transcript: I will begin by asking a straightforward and fundamental question: who is this sector currently working for? Who is it working for socially, economically or environmentally? It is difficult to answer that question. In considering the social aspect, people have pointed out the importance of sheep farming and upland farming within our communities. I was at a meeting of the Comeragh Uplands and Communities EIP Project recently. I was not quite the youngest person in the room but I was not far from it. The age demographic of the people who are farming these uplands closely resembles the age demographic in the Dáil. They are older people. They are telling me that the reason they are continuing to farm their lands and not hand them over is that the younger generation does not want to take it on. One would struggle to find an upland farmer in his or her 30s.

Why is the sector not working socially? It is not working socially because it is not working economically. It is incredibly difficult for a sheep farmer, particularly in the uplands, to make money from the enterprise. There is hard graft in sheep farming and there is no getting around that. The average income from sheep farming in 2023 is going to fall by 2% to €19,500. I realise these are, in general, smaller farms but €19,500 does not equate to an income. These are part-time farmers and people who are having to earn off-farm incomes to make ends meet. We can see why. The Minister referenced €6.70 per kg, which is something of an improvement to the price people are getting for their lamb. The IFA figure has already been quoted. We have seen net margins on farms drop by 81% to just €7 per ewe. That reality combined with ever-increasing input costs tells us it is not working for sheep farmers.

Wool has been mentioned on numerous occasions. It is something we deliberately included in the programme for Government so we can examine the issue in a coherent way, to develop our wool strategy, move on to the wool council and find all of those uses to which other Deputies have referred so we can add value to the product. That is all welcome and we cannot do it quickly enough. The sooner the better in terms of bringing that work to a result. However, at the moment it is costing farmers as much to get the shearing done as they are going to make on the wool. We have heard from multiple speakers that the wool is sometimes simply discarded.

The situation is obviously working for somebody. The €500 million in exports has been mentioned. My colleague Deputy Flaherty was applauding the fact we are the second largest exporter of sheep meat within the EU. I am not sure that is something we should be necessarily be applauding. I am not sure the benefit here is in producing more and more. I am not sure that is a model that has been working for farmers. It is working for somebody. It is working for the meat processors and exporters but I am not at all convinced it is working for the farmers. We are seeing an increase in numbers. We saw an increase of 6.4% in the number of sheep in the country, based on recent figures. However, I am not sure the economic model of more and more and developing and opening new markets is the way to go. The way to go is far more along the lines of what Deputy Cairns said about trying to keep the added value closer to the farm gate. Connemara lamb is an example of the development of a high-grade product where added value is happening on the farm. That makes much more sense to me. It makes more sense economically but also environmentally.

The Minister spoke in his speech about the hills being postcards to tourists. The Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, talked about preserving a unique landscape, but that is not the fact of the matter. In fact, when we look at Irish hills and mountains at the moment, we are looking at a landscape that is denuded by overgrazing. It is not a landscape that is actually supporting our biodiversity objectives. We have acknowledged in this Dáil that we are living through an environmental and biodiversity crisis. It is also not a model that works for us in terms of the type of carbon sequestration that we know can happen on our hillsides. It is certainly not a picture of what our hillsides would look like if they were not being intensively grazed. That is not to try to place any blame on the hill farmers who have been forced into this model.

That was the big lesson I learned when I went up to the lads by the Mahon Falls just above Kilrossanty and spoke to them. Through their engagement through the EIP, they found they learned far more about the hills, the biodiversity, the heritage richness – both archaeological and in biodiversity – that exists on their landscape. It changed their whole mindset about how they wanted to engage in the management of those mountains where their families have been for years. They are as frustrated by this model as anybody else. They are frustrated by the idea of having to push more and more units through land that is already degraded for the benefit of whom? As I said, I think it is the processors and exporters. By exporting 85% of this product, we are onshoring ecological and biological damage in order to export product. I do not think that is serving the people who are working the land.

As part of this debate, I want to mention commonages, which form a significant part of the ownership mosaic, particularly in mountainous areas. If there is an issue with succession and succession planning for hillside farms, what is happening with commonages is even more stark. I submitted a parliamentary question relatively recently and would not expect the answer yet. Based on figures from 2014, the dormancy rates on our commonages are running at a national average of 63.3%. That means that if ten people have a share in a commonage, only three or four of them are actively working it. When controlled burning of heather needs to be done to renew the grass, six of the ten do not turn up. When there are discussions about how to manage their share of the land, they turn up then and suddenly have an opinion. There is a difficulty there. As a reflection of the scale of what we are talking about, 440,000 ha are under commonage. It is a difficult mosaic to manage. It is difficult for these people to make good decisions about how they will manage that area of land with that level of dormancy.

The EU nature restoration law was discussed with representatives from the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association, INHFA, at this week’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. If we are looking to vindicate the types of goals in that EU nature restoration law, if we are really serious about hitting our emissions reduction targets in agriculture and if we are serious about trying to restore our upland bogs, we will need to get serious about how we fund the landowners to make the types of changes required. I am not convinced that funding per head in order to increase throughput and open some new export market while growing our stock numbers by 6.4% is the way to achieve those goals while providing a viable on-farm income for the people closest to the land and who should stand to benefit most.

In a recent article, entitled Goodbye to the Hills, the Irish Wildlife Trust stated that commonages are too big to continue to fail, whether that is socially, economically or environmentally. I agree with that. It is part of the picture we will need to look at in detail if we are to address issues relating to land use, land-use change and the nature restoration law in a serious way. That is where we need to look.

All of us here are good at coming in and outlining problems, which is the easy part, rather than outlining solutions. I think the solutions lie in funding the people who work our land in a different way. I do not believe that maximising throughput with no regard to the environmental or social damage being inflicted on people stacks up. We will not be able to continue with that kind of model in 2030 or 2050. If we want things like the EU nature restoration law to work, we need to fund adequately the landowners, the people who work that land. More often than not, they have the precise skills needed to manage the lands in a way to allow us to meet our emissions and biological targets. They are the people closest to the land and understand it best. We need to move away from a model that is just mining the ecological heritage of our landscape in order to produce an export market and move much closer to something that values the inherent value of that land and the people working it.