New signs of optimism to be seen in our sheep industry

I ARRIVED early at Scotsheep last week – the sun was still low in the sky. Perhaps it was my imagination, but as I watched sheep men tumbling out of their cars and pick-ups, having endured one of the worst winters in a generation, the sun seemed to put a spring in their step.

Perhaps the bounce came from the better fortunes the sector is now enjoying, but right from the start there was a buzz of optimism and good feeling pervading the event.

The organisers must have been mightily pleased. They had chosen an excellent site close to a motorway with a first-class family-run farm as hosts – Douglas and Lynda Graham of Mains of Burnbank, Blairdrummond, Stirling.

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From early morning, the farm steading around which the event was held rang with the chatter of sheep men and women talking sheep.

Perhaps because of the economic fortune they are now experiencing, most of this was positive, even although the natural inbred caution of farmers does not allow that feeling to run unqualified.

So there was a moan or two about the lack of grass and a lingering reluctant grumble on the electronic identification of their flocks.

My journalistic antennae also picked out a bit of tension in one or two of the multitude of breed societies present – but then anyone who knows anything about breed societies knows these are hotbeds of internal dispute and power struggles.

Breed societies are full of very focused people and it is no big news that they carry their vision forward into how they want the organisation to run.

But all in all, Scotsheep was an excellent day out for the sheep industry. It was a further example of a sector providing an event that allowed practical farmers to see and talk about the issues within the industry.

That was the case with Scotgrass and the Beef Expo events last month and no doubt will be at the cereals event later this week.

The recipe for success for all of these events seems to be to get an organising committee that knows the industry inside out.

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However, I left Scotsheep with more than a little worry. Nothing to do with the organisation, you understand. No, it was more to do with the future of the Scottish sheep industry.

Stuart Ashworth, the marketing guru at Quality Meat Scotland, had underlined just how vulnerable the industry is to currency volatility with such a large percentage of the lamb crop being sold to Europe.

And ever since the banking crisis there has been a considerable ebb and flow in the values of sterling against the euro.

With what is bound to be an austerity Budget coming up in the UK, there will be repercussions on how the strength of the pound is perceived. So, in currency terms, we live in interesting times.

And then there is the political potential for barriers being erected against Scotch lamb. If French and Spanish farmers and politicians continue to promote "co-responsibility" as part of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, it may be more difficult to export lamb to Europe in the future.

Another niggly worry from Scotsheep was the quiet word from one of those involved in the research work to improve the quality and marketability of lamb.

Ashworth was worried that with the better financial climate now being experienced, the impetus for such work was blunted. Producers know there is a demand for their lamb and they know there is a bit of profit in the job.

There is less need to strive to squeeze the last pound out of the job and the relevance of the research is pushed back out of sight as it is more comfortable just to continue doing as you, and generations before have always done.

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And just around the corner, two farmers promoting so-called "easycare" sheep – apparently with less costs involved in production – were discussing the same issue.

The sheep industry is quite conservative in its approach, they said, and when times are easier, there is less incentive to look at ways of reducing production costs.

By now my thoughts had taken me back to the point where I was driving through the local town. I thought of the empty state of my fridge at home and decided to stop and buy a lamb chop.

All in all it was a very sheep-filled day.