Could better marketing revive the Hill Sheep Industry?

Hannah Downey

A large Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group spanning Scotland and Ireland has decided to focus on marketing hill sheep to other farmers as the best way to boost the declining profitability of the hill sheep industry.

One member said the group had existed for five years but had never managed to make progress until RISS got involved.

The group consists of 14 members, including hill sheep farmers from across Scotland and Ireland, a vet and two SRUC researchers. They have been performance-recording sheep and meeting annually to discuss various solutions to the problem of declining profit margins. Glasgow University vet, group member and part-time sheep farmer George King​ said, "We were meeting our genetic improvement goals and wanted to take the next step, but despite extended discussion over the years we could not settle on what this direction should be."

Through RISS, sheep and grassland specialist Poppy Frater of SAC Consulting was appointed the group's facilitator in March. Thanks to her open-minded chairing of meetings and surveying of members, the group has now united behind the idea of selling the relative benefits of hill sheep as breeding stock.

“The problem,” says veteran Irish sheep farmer and group member 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.

 “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.”

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 a health accreditation scheme for example to reassure 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.”

 “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, Ms Frater designed a survey for group members, which led to a consensus. "We're a bunch with strong opinions, which makes us likely to disagree," says Mr King. "But the survey made this a joint decision we can all get behind."

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. "I will still be part of the group and I look forward to seeing where they go next," says Ms Frater.

​You can find out more on the RISS website.