The National Sheep Association (NSA) is a charity, originally founded in 1892 as the National Sheep Breeders Association (stop sniggering at the back). It has just over 6000 members, and as such is a very small charity, if measured by those terms. However they are also relatively wealthy, having recently received a generous £300k+ bequest and have plenty of money in the bank. Whether the NSA’s members feel that their money is being spent well, will be considered later in this post.
The NSA’s charitable purpose is
“To encourage and improve breeding, management and promotion of sheep as a species and as an activity in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in pursuit of advancing education, health, heritage, science, environmental protection and improvement and animal welfare for the public benefit.”
Whether this charitable purpose would make it through the Charity Commission application process these days, is certainly a question worth asking. Can promoting sheep – a species that originated in central Asia, really be considered to be in the public benefit? If I wanted to start a charity promoting, say, the Lentil (which also originated in Central Asia) would it get through the CC maze? I doubt it.
Never mind, the NSA is a charity and does charitable work. Their front man is the appropriately named Phil Stocker, and I will resist the temptation to call him Phil “over” Stocker. Or I may not.
Mr Stocker and the NSA like the idea of returning the extinct native wild cat the Lynx to Britain, about as much as the Angling Trust like the idea of the vegetarian non-fish-eating Beaver returning to rivers. Stocker has previously made various hysterical pronouncements about the threat that introducing a handful of Lynx in a few places in Britain would have to the mighty sheep growing industry.
Worried that the Lynx reintroduction campaign is continuing to gain momentum, the NSA decided to do what is regarded as fairly standard practice these days, to produce a “scientific report” entitled the Wider Consequences of the Introduction of Lynx to the UK. This is not a good start though, as the report fails to address any consequences of Lynx reintroduction, except those which might affect sheep.
The report includes some case studies to back up its claims, including, bizarrely, the damage inflicted on the sheep industry by Ravens.
Ravens are attacking sheep here in Dorset. A Dorset sheep farm has gained a licence from Natural England to kill up to four Ravens a year. It is not clear how many sheep have been killed by the Ravens.
What has that got to with Lynx? Ravens were until relatively recently a very rare sight across most of Britain. Ravens are now thankfully increasing in numbers, partly because they are not being killed by landowners. Is the NSA suggesting they should be eradicated again, because a few sheep have been attacked? We are not told, but the implication is clear. Ravens attack sheep, so they should be killed; Lynx attack sheep and should not be reintroduced.
Another case study looks at sheep attacks by dogs, though mainly focusses on how little compensation sheep farmers receive following dog attacks. Unhelpfully, the case study gives not indication of how many sheep are attacked by dogs in Britain annually. This is especially odd, given that this is one of the NSA’s main campaigns, and they have produced reports about it previously. In 2013, they reported 739 dog attacks cost an estimated £1m to the industry. The NFU estimated 18000 livestock (that will be mostly sheep) were killed by dogs last year.
To cap all this obfuscation and diversion, the NSA finishes off with the frankly ridiculous claim that
“sheep grazing, at appropriate stocking densities, allows for a species-rich environment, clean water and carbon storage.”
Who would make such a claim? Is it a quote from a paper in the Journal of Ecology? No, the source of the claim is another NSA report entitled “Environmental Benefits: Complementary Role of Sheep in Less Favoured Areas”.
Stocker has also produced various quotes to go along with the report, including the priceless
“Sheep play an important part of maintaining the biodiversity of the current, perfectly functioning ecosystem, which would be disrupted by the introduction of an unnecessary predator.”
“Around 75% of biodiversity in the UK has a relationship with agriculture and, as a country, we have invested heavily in agri-environment schemes to enhance this. Grassland environments, which are considered to be an attractive and desirable part of our countryside, are largely managed by sheep farming.”
What Stocker and the NSA conveniently ignore is that the low-intensity agriculture which British wildlife used to have a relationship with, has by and large disappeared, replaced by intensive farming, for which there is no place for wildlife. This is as true on the overgrazed fells of Cumbria as it is on the Maize-filled fields of the south-west.
Stocker also ignores the fact that 17000 sheep and lambs a year are killed by domestic dogs, with many more maimed and traumatised. How many sheep would really be taken by a few dozen Lynx? Unlike dogs, Lynx only kill what they will eat. I would suggest that it would be around 1000 times more likely for a sheep farmer in Britain to lose an animal to a domestic dog than a Lynx if they were reintroduced.
If sheep farmers invested in sheep dogs (the original ones that guarded sheep flocks against predators, rather than the ones that round them up) they would prevent dog attacks as well as Lynx attacks. The NSA report does mention them, though strangely calls them “Guardian dogs”. It notes that in the USA 40% of sheep farms have such Sheep Dogs, but then claims that it wouldn’t work in Britain, because neighbours would complain about the dogs barking. Having lived in rural England, I can assure the NSA that there are already plenty of dogs barking in the countryside.
This report is riddled with fatuous claims, errors and anecdote. It ignores or downplays all the scientific evidence for the benefits of reintroducing predators such as the Lynx; and places the sheep on an altar where its needs must be met, above all else. Perhaps that is to be expected from the NSA, but still. What particularly surprised me was that the BBC should give free publicity, uncritically, to such a poor piece of work.
It comes down to what Society wants.
In 2013 there were nearly 15 million sheep in England alone. We subsidise the sheep industry very heavily, especially in the hills. And every sheep farmer who lost a sheep taken by a Lynx would be compensated.
The Lynx Trust claim that reintroducing Lynx would add £60 or £70m a year to the economy. I think this is entirely the wrong argument to use. It’s really not about the money; it’s about what sort of a country we want to live in.
Do we really want 15 million sheep and no Lynx, or 14,999,900 sheep and a few Lynx?