Wyn Evans’s family has farmed in the hills of Ceredigion, west Wales, for five centuries. This is a remote, wet and often cold corner of the UK, a tough place to live and work but the biggest threat at the moment comes not in the shape of the winter storms.
“Brexit is what’s worrying us at the moment. This is a very difficult time for farmers,” said Evans, 55, who rears sheep and cattle with his wife Nicole and son Gwynfor. “It’s a job to plan because nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re on the cusp of lambing just now. I can’t tell you if I’ll have a lucrative market for our lambs or not. You have to carry on even though you don’t know what’s around the corner.
“If there is no deal it would be horrific for farmers, especially in the sheep sector. If we have tariffs of 40/50/60% we wouldn’t be able to compete. We would suffer serious hardship. When we had foot and mouth and the borders closed the price of lamb collapsed. That’s the reality. The losses to farmers and to the rural community as a whole would be huge.”
Only 5% of lamb produced in Wales is consumed in the country, according to Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales – and up to 40% is exported out of the UK. More than 90% of these exports are to the EU.
Evans’s lambs initially go to an abattoir across the hills in Llanidloes. The prime cuts – the legs and shoulders – end up on supermarket shelves in the UK. However, the European market is vital for so-called “carcass balance” – the bits of lamb that are not so popular in the UK are exported. The meat from lighter lambs produced by Evans and his colleagues is also popular in Portugal and Italy.
Brexit has already prompted Evans to reduce his flock – from around 400 to 370. “We’ve cut down on the sheep slightly,” he said. To try to compensate he has boosted the number of beef cattle he rears. “There’s a lot of young cattle around the place,” he said. The UK is a net importer of beef so Evans is calculating that the beef price may hold up.
Brexit follows a difficult 12 months weather-wise for farmers such as Evans. Last March it was cold – the beast from east bit viciously here – and was followed by a hot summer. “Our spare bales went last spring. Then we had that horrendously dry summer. The grass didn’t grow well, the crops were light. We’ve got nothing to stockpile. We are struggling this winter for forage.”