Meet the greatest threat to our countryside: sheep

Sheep have done more damage to Britain’s environment than all the building that has ever taken place

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

The section of the A83 that runs between Loch Long and Loch Fyne in western Scotland is known as the Rest and Be Thankful. It would be better described as the Get the Hell out of Here. For this, as far as I can tell, is the British trunk road most afflicted by landslips.

The soil on the brae above the road is highly unstable. There have been six major slips since 2007, which have shut the road for a total of 34 days. The cost of these closures is estimated at about £290,000 a year. It’s a minor miracle that no one has yet been killed. The Scottish government has spent millions on clearing the road and building culverts and barriers. It’s about to launch a new engineering project, at a cost of £10 million, which it hopes will reduce the frequency of these disasters.

Sensible, logical? Yes — until you hear this. One of the factors destabilising the soil is the presence of sheep on the hillside. A report commissioned by the government notes that the sheep make landslips more likely because they compact and erode the soil and prevent trees and shrubs (whose roots might otherwise have fixed the slope) from growing. The number of sheep on the hillside exceeds the danger point identified by scientists, beyond which erosion becomes severe. Throughout the years of consultants’ reports and engineering solutions, repeated landslips and continuing danger to the public, the sheep have remained on the hillside. Every one of those animals must have cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds. But they are worth next to nothing: the government describes the economic value of the grazing as ‘negligible’.

It’s an extreme example, but it’s indicative of a wider issue: we pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside. The white plague has caused more extensive environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place, but to identify it as an agent of destruction is little short of blasphemy. Britain is being shagged by sheep, but hardly anyone dares say so.


I blame Theocritus. His development in the third century BC of the pastoral tradition — the literary convention that associates shepherding with virtue and purity — helps to inspire our wilful blindness towards its destructive impacts. His theme was embraced by Virgil and the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, ‘who takes away the sin of the world’. The Elizabethans revived the tradition, and the beautiful nonsense Marlowe, Spenser and others published about the uncorrupted pastoral life resonates with us still. Their eclogues and idylls, bucolics and mimes persist today on Sunday-night television, through which we wistfully immerse ourselves in the lives of hunky shepherds and adorable lambs, sheepdog trials and market days.

This tradition, coupled with an urban cultural cringe towards those who make their living from the land, means that challenging the claims and demands of hill farmers is, politically, almost impossible. Instead we throw money at them. I’ve used Wales as my case study. Here, 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.

But that’s just the beginning. Hill farmers are used to justify the entire subsidy system. Farmers’ unions and governments throughout Europe push them forward and tell moving stories about their plight to justify the €50 billion the EU spends every year. The barley barons and oilseed oligarchs hiding behind them must scarcely believe their luck.

Farmers argue that keeping sheep in the hills makes an essential contribution to Britain’s food supply. But does it? Just over three quarters of the area of Wales is devoted to livestock farming, largely to produce meat. But according to the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment, Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity.

That’s not quite the end of the issue. Deep vegetation on the hills absorbs rain when it falls and releases it gradually, delivering a steady supply of water to the lowlands. When grazing prevents trees and shrubs from growing, and when the small sharp hooves of sheep compact the soil, rain flashes off the hills, causing floods downstream. When the floods abate, water levels fall rapidly. Upland grazing, in other words, contributes to a cycle of flood and drought. This restricts the productivity of more fertile lands downstream, both drowning them and depriving them of irrigation water. Given the remarkably low output in the upland areas of Britain, it is within the range of possibility that hill farming creates a net loss of food.

Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. Only the merest remnants of life persist. Spend two hours sitting in a bushy suburban garden and you are likely to see more birds and of a greater range of species than in walking five miles across almost any part of the British uplands. The land has been sheepwrecked.

I accept that hill farmers are only trying to survive, and that theirs is a tough, thankless and precarious occupation. I’m not calling for the entire tradition of hill-farming to be abandoned (not that there’s much left of it in this age of quad bikes, consolidation and absentee ranchers). I am calling for a good deal more scepticism about the claims of those who champion it. And for a sweeping reassessment of a subsidy system which has been sold to us with a series of falsehoods.

Do we really believe that keeping the hills bare, wiping out wildlife, helping to flood homes and farms and exacerbating landslips is a good use of public money?

George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding is out now.

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Show comments
  • mike hamblett

    Were being duped again. Subsidies are a modern way of paying tithes to landholders. The more land the more money. Iniquitous and immoral and ruinous to the countryside. (Remember the subs for removing hedgerows, then the subs to replant them.

    • GeorgeMonbiot

      True. There’s an analogy to be drawn between the single farm payment (the major component of CAP, paid by poorer taxpayers to landowners by the hectare) and the “feudal aid” that used to be provided by vassals to their lords. More here: http://www.monbiot.com/2012/11/26/the-fat-of-the-land/

      • Peter Mawson

        Hello George

        Are you still on-line..?

        We own a small farm on the North York Moors. I am not opposed to some of what you say. It would however be useful to hear/read in the media how you propose to change the situation as you see it.

        I would agree that a balance could be sort, but you know that the farmer often manages land in a way that is mandated by government. Some of the work of Natural England is good, we maintain traditional hay meadows, hedges and wet areas favourable to insects and birds and receive a modest subsidy for that. But impressing upon farmers, Natural England and National Parks the need for change (tree planting on the Moors?) might best be achieved with trials or examples of best practice.

        Would a discussion around the benefits for farmers (some will be tenants) and landowners speed up adoption of some of your ideas? Eco-tourism has its potential, but could be its own worst enemy if it were too successful.

        The statistic regarding sheep meat eaten in Wales; is that a viable use of the data? Does it just suggest that people living in Wales prefer beef etc and the lamb the farms produce is eaten in England or elsewhere?

        Thanks for reading.

        • itzman

          Not much the guvmint can do. Its all part of the CAP.

          At least Stuart Agnew (UKIP) has tried to work out how to restore sanity to agriculture..But it boils down to ‘nothing quickly’ simply because farmers have huge investments in particular types of livestock and crops. And cant be expected to change their way of life overnight. Only Greens force that on you. (cf Germany’s disastrous energiewiende).

          • dalai guevara

            I would agree with you if UKIP actually had an energy policy to start with – can you shed some light on the fact that their pamphlet has vanished and not replaced for weeks?

            Incidentally, they are also in the club of parties that no longer deny AGW.

            Come on chaps, take some risks, go all the way…

        • http://thelightcavalry.zenfolio.com/about.html Mark Adams

          I love the N.York Moors and realize that the heather landscape is maintained by burning and sheep-grazing, so maybe I’d allow sheep there, but in general I see no reason to subsidize farmers of any kind. We generally seem to downgrade the countryside thereby; monocultural forests, oilseed rape, wind turbines, sheep…Anyway, I’m not subsidized so I don’t see why I should subsidize farmers other than by buying their produce when I want it.

          • Peter Mawson

            Hello Mark

            I think there’s a balance to be struck. Sheep could be excluded from areas to allow wilding to take hold. Would it deliver the benefits George Monbiot believes, only time would tell.

            Many farmers agree and would like to move forward without a subsidy.

            The subsidy we receive does come with conditions; we cannot do as please and must accept measures ranging from when hay can be cut, what type of animal can graze which field and when and so on. There are pages of rules and we can be fined for not complying – remember that we own the land, but don’t have a completely freehand. On the flip side the subsidy does allow government an element of control as to the appearance of the countryside, so (if the farmer were that way inclined) hedges or stone walls cannot be removed etc.

            In our case we do spend the money on the farm and our small part of the countryside many people enjoy, including improving/maintaining habitats for wildlife. It very definitely isn’t sitting boosting the savings account.

            The system is far from perfect; it is at least an improvement on the headage payments of old. These were production subsidies that contributed to overstocking and you’ll be aware most famously of the milk lakes and butter mountains. Large companies also receive the same subsidy; that isn’t ideal set against there multi million pound profits.

            The market is distorted by subsidy. In New Zealand the farming industry did away with any form of sudsidy and survived. The UK challenge is one of EU membership; if the UK didn’t pay, our French and German etc neighbours/competitors would still carry on, with the potential to harm exports. Those farmers would simply have more money to spend.

            The subsidy is the only reason some farmers, especially in the uplands, stay in business. Unfortunately the price paid for meat, milk etc in the shops means that that situation will endure. If the price of produce were to reflect the cost of production the wider industry (and its political lobby) would be more comfortable with the end of the subsidy regime. In terms of price increase, that means pence per kilo or litre, not pounds.

            Thanks for reading, have a good weekend.

          • http://thelightcavalry.zenfolio.com/about.html Mark Adams

            Peter, I presume you farm near Urra Moor. This exchange brings back memories. I still occasionally take my New York wife up your way and she’s succumbed too. Anyway I accept your remarks in relation to that unique area.

            Maybe the worst aspect of subsidies is that they envelope independent-minded, creative, industrious small farmers like yourself and hinder you from adapting to market pressures. Squawk at a flapwing for me.


          • Jambo25

            That’s fine but what do you suggest we do with the very large chunk of the UK landmass which will be totally depopulated as a result of this?

          • http://thelightcavalry.zenfolio.com/about.html Mark Adams

            Enjoy it.

          • Jambo25

            And what should the people who live there do?

          • http://thelightcavalry.zenfolio.com/about.html Mark Adams

            You’re saying that hill-farming should be a taxpayer subsidized activity because otherwise those businesses aren’t viable. Well, it’s a point of view, but it’s wrong. My money is better employed by me anyway and state aid is at best a waste of money, but normally leads to multiple perverse consequences – to the environment in this case.

          • Jambo25

            Hill farming probably could possibly become profitable, subsidy free, if only we removed lots and lots of regulations. If not, we could simply pack the large number of people displaced into our cities where they could add to the resentful and totally unproductive unemployed.

  • Christoph Maelin

    I’ve seen sheep used as an argument against the reintroduction or even
    for the destruction of large raptors (not too different from the
    indefensible destruction of buzzards eggs to protect pheasants you have
    reported on previously). They have also been used to argue against wind
    turbines, since allegedly a wind turbine even some distance away can
    spook the sheep in to trampling their lambs.

    In these cases it’s
    always the ‘cute little lambs’ which are used as an emotional hook to
    catch the uncritical, despite the fact they are destined for the dinner
    plate in any case and much of the cruelty they experience in their short
    lives is at the hands of man, dogs or their own artificially selected
    genetics making them poorly suited to fend for themselves on hills.

  • Christoph Maelin

    One more thought, I’d be interested to know where the benefit from subsidies actually ends up. It might be that one consequence of subsidy is allowing supermarket buyers to continue to pay below cost price for farm produce. If the subsidy were stopped some farmers would surely go out of business and some reduction in sheep farming would occur, however I don’t see much decline in demand for lamb & other sheep products. So supermarkets would have to pay more – perhaps they’d get away with passing a lot of that increase on to the consumer, but either way many farmers would be made profitable (or atleast break even) without subsidy assuming demand for their produce is still there.

    I dislike the idea of subsidising large land owners and even the proverbial small farmer to continue a damaging practice without very good cause, but if the end result is (reportedly tax avoiding) supermarkets pocket most of the benefit that would be truly distressing.

  • itzman

    Of course sheep can and do live where nothing else useful will grow, and eat vegetation that is inedible to humans.

    Better sheep than windmills.

    If you REALLY want to see subsidies wasted on wrecking the environment.

    • Adam York

      trees perhaps……Soil erosion curtailed many societies before us

  • Melissa

    It’s interesting to read this as an American of Scottish heritage because my ancestors were apparently cleared from the land they lived on to make room for sheep. The event was called The Highland Clearances and it devastated Gaelic culture. Many people died when evicted from their homes for sheep. It’s interesting to hear that the government is even now funding this system.

    • HarryTheHornyHippo

      Where would you be now sweetheart if they hadn’t been cleared off the land… there’s a thought.

      • Jambo25

        Possibly living in her ancestral homeland.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Ok, I care not about the sheep or the sheep shaggers, but calling out Marlowe as a writer of “beautiful nonsense” is an insult beyond acceptable.

    Will it be blades or pistols, sir ?


  • Myfanwy Alexander

    No animal grazing the Welsh moorlands before sheep? No wild goats? No ponies? Wild cattle/aurochs? To say nothing of deer. The sheep-grazed hill turf of my childhood was studded with umpteen wild flowers, nibbled by said woolly menaces. The real threat to the hills of mid-Wales comes from the criminal conspiracy to profit from 600 ft turbines, not a few Hardy Welsh Speckle-Faces.

  • disqus_TvbI3Hn1sS

    Grazing done right, in a fashion that tramples the ground, spreads manure and urine, and biologically decomposes grasses, has a positive effect on the soils, the grasses, and the entire ecosystem. I cannot say that this is the grazing taking place in western Scotland. However, sheep and ruminants in general are an important part of the health of an ecosystem, not its decline, so long as grazing is done properly. Allan Savory and his principles of holistic resource management speak directly to this for many arid areas of the world. I see no reason that these principles wouldn’t apply to western Scotland as well despite the near continuous humidity.

  • walstir

    Better sheep than goats like the Mediterranean – they don’t have to worry about soil erosion since the goats ensured that the soil all ended up being washed away centuries ago.

  • gwvanderleun

    But…. but….. but George without sheep you’d have no sex life at all.

    • Airey Belvoir

      Scottish sheep are understandably panicked by the sound of zips – hence the increasing prevalence of the kilt.

    • global city

      Perhaps that is why he has been so passionate in this new campaign of his.

      When he lived in Wales one of the sheep he propositioned turned him down?

  • richard

    Instead perhaps you can have your unemployed can cut the grass with scissors.
    Down here in unsubsidised New Zealand we are starting to milk our sheep to make a few more dollars

  • HarryTheHornyHippo

    You can eat ’em though and they taste pretty good so quit the whingeing.

  • Andrew Richard Tait

    I appreciate the article’s diplomatic afterhthought, but a few questions?
    The farmland worked by my father’s family for generations is replete with various wildlife. Is it indisputable that sheep are as harmful as supposed and don’t provide sufficient supply?

    I suspect the public’s appreciation of those who work to provide material for food and fabric is more than sentimental tradition, regardless of economic circumstance.

    Economics are a foreign language to me, but mightn’t economic circumstance contribute to hill farming’s low earnings?

    Hill farmers protect sheep from disease. If a horn grows inward, it is trimmed. If a dog gets ideas about biting a sheep, it is instantly called off.

    Previous comment: strong point, well put. 🙂

  • http://thelightcavalry.zenfolio.com/about.html Mark Adams

    Mr Monbiot, I’ve laughed at your Warmism for years, but this is spot on. Bravo.

  • Jambo25

    OK Mr. Monbiot, tell us what to do with the vast chunk of Scotland (it isn’t just Argyllshire) that is agriculturally fit only for livestock farming.? How about Dumfries and Galloway, where I live for a fair chunk of time? Do you want to close down hill farming there as well?

  • http://twitter.com/TheRedBladder The Red Bladder

    Remove the sheep from Scotland? Surely there’s few enough Conservative voters up there as it is?

  • allymax bruce

    The biggest danger to our country aside sheep, is the dead-hand of homosexual churnalists; like maladroit parris.
    Fukkinn homodistort, lie as much as they can, to distort, lie, cheat, deceive; and , completely reverse further truth, to be a lie.
    Parris, is, a liar. And he thinks his homosexuality will save him; will, somehow give him credence. NO. There are journalists, that are homosexual ; but there’s homosexuals, that think they’re journalists.
    Time you were thrown off this ugly, and evil Westminster homosexual ride. Westminster is dead.

  • global city

    Surely the greatest threat to the countryside, and indeed, humanity is the old moonbot himself?

  • Simon Hart

    Excellent to read an article debunking the myth of sheep farmers being the self styled “guardians of the countryside”. Yesterday evening i walked up Ben Imme, high above the Rest and be thankful. This is truly a trashed environment. High on a rocky crag at about 600 metres asl I saw a lonely rowan bush, probably more than a kilometre from the nearest visible tree. This is not a pioneer tree, but a relic of a rich ecosytem eaten to the ground by subsidised sheep. And the Scottish minister for the environment, Richard Lochead, totally supports the farmers. When can we change this outrage?

  • Gordon Friedman

    The problem is compacted soil preventing shrubs and trees from taking hold, which have the benefit of averting erosion/land slip that can cause the road to become unstable.

    The author has made the logical conclusion that since sheep compact the soil, then sheep must be the problem and goes on to tie this conclusion to an argument against subsidies. This is a fallacious conclusion for two reasons, although sheep compact the soil, there may be other factors involved that can affect soil density. No other factors were even considered. Also, the author offers no solution other than to remove the farming subsidy, when there are at least two solutions that come to my mind; 1 Plant vegetation that grows in dense soil, 2 Dig a trench to prevent flooding.

    The end of the article appears to be written as though the author has the goal of arguing against farming subsidies, but he phrased it as an argument against sheep farming specifically. This is why the argument does not reduce to the logical conclusion he came up with.

    Although, sheep farming may have an effect on soil erosion, there are other factors involved as a cause of erosion and other solutions than to just remove the sheep. The author never addressed any other factors or solutions.