Could better marketing revive the hill sheep industry?



An Uphill Battle

Picture: Mossfennan Farm in the Borders

A large RISS group spanning Scotland and Ireland has decided to focus on marketing hill sheep to other farmers as the best way to boost their farm profitability.

The group, which has 14 members and is facilitated by sheep and grassland specialist Poppy Frater of SAC Consulting, decided lack of understanding in the current stock sale environment about the relative advantages of hill sheep was holding the industry back.

"We are producing superior stock but not getting a premium for it"

“The problem,” says veteran Irish sheep farmer Campbell Tweed of Ballycoose Farm in County Antrim, “is that we are producing superior stock but not getting a premium for it. The Scottish and Northern Irish show sale environment doesn’t fit very well with what we are doing because sheep coming off grass are not heavily fed prior to sale.

“A lot of commercial farmers are not aware of the benefits of performance recording stock, they just go by sight and shape. Whereas grass-reared fit for purpose rams, for example, although smaller live for longer, can mate with more ewes and have low labour and vet interventions.

Picture: The group at work

 “It’s about building up a better linkage between the stock breeder and the producer, as well as between lowland farmers and fellow hill farmers.”

The group was set up to tackle challenges facing the hill sheep industry because of declining profit margins in the three traditional routes for hill lambs – providing breeding stock for the UK, selling as store to lowland farmers and selling to the Mediterranean market who prefer a smaller size (this latter further threatened by Brexit).

"There are some brilliant minds in the group"

Initially, explains Poppy Frater, the group wasn’t sure what to focus on out of four potential areas. “One idea was to sell the environmental benefits of hill farms, such as maintaining the upland landscape and biodiversity,” she says.  “Another was developing best practice around biosecurity, like an accreditation scheme for example to assure potential buyers. The third was systems analysis and finally, to market the genetic progress and benefits of hill breeding ewes and rams to other farmers.”

Picture: facilitator Poppy Frater

“There are some brilliant minds in the group,” she adds, “and helping them focus and get a plan of action seemed very worthwhile.”

With the help of the RISS wider network, Poppy designed a survey for group members, which led to the decision to focus on selling the benefits of hill sheep as breeding stock to potential buyers.  

She will now hand over some of her facilitation time to SAC Consulting’s marketing specialist Kerry Allison, who will present the group with possible approaches at their next meeting in September.

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