Brexit forced my farm to stop rearing sheep after 200 years - it lost us thousands (2024)

SNOWDONIA, WALES – Life as a farmer in the rugged peaks of EryriNational Park is not easy. The weather can be merciless, the days long, the agriculture unpredictable.

But there has been a new challenge in the last three years: Brexit.

Britain’s departure from the European Union led to seismic changes in agricultural policy and support for farmers across the UK, ending European subsidy schemes and ushering in new trade deals.

Despite the magnitude of the shift, discussion of Brexit’s impact on the UK has been largely absent from the general election campaigns. It is in stark contrast to the 2019 poll, when Boris Johnson ran on the slogan “Get Brexit Done” and secured a landslide victory.

With just days to go until polls open, i is travelling across all four nations to meet some of those most affected by Brexit, finding out how life has changed for them and how the experience might affect their vote on 4 July.

‘We don’t have any certainty any more’

Following the Brexit vote, Snowdonia farmer Paul Williams says he was forced to stop rearing sheep for the first time in his farm’s 200 year history.

“Traditionally we’ve been a beef and sheep farm, as are most of the farms around us. At the time, half our sheep were a mountain flock, and 90 per cent of the lambs from that flock were destined for the EU export market. I saw it as an unnecessary risk to the business,” he says, sitting in the garden of his farmhouse, flanked by the dramatic slopes of the Eryri mountains.

“We decided as a family that we wanted to take that risk element out of the business – primarily because of Brexit. There were other reasons, but that was one of the big ones – so we decided to go out of sheep production.

“It was a huge step and I know my neighbours were thinking I was absolutely crazy. We didn’t take it lightly.”

Like many farmers, Mr Williams, a remain voter, had been receiving payments from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a post-war EU scheme designed to help keep food prices low.

While these payments have been replaced by the UK Government, farmers and the Welsh Government have raised concerns about the post-Brexit arrangement.

Westminster reduced the amount of CAP replacement funding it gave to Wales by £243m between 2021 and 2024 compared to the funding the country would have received had it remained in the EU, according to the Welsh Government.

There are also concerns about the future of the funding; it is currently being budgeted annually rather than every five to seven years, as it was in the EU, and at present has only been confirmed until 2024, with the rest to be determined after the general election.

As the CAP replacement funding is not ringfenced by the Welsh Government, there are also fears it could potentially be eroded. The NFU – National Farmers’ Union – says it wants to see all parties provide clarity on their intentions for the agricultural budgets prior to the election.

This instability has a real-world cost for farmers, according to Mr Williams.

“[Pre-Brexit], you could go to the bank and say look, that money is guaranteed to come in every year regardless of what we do or produce,” he says. “We don’t have that certainty any more.”

The impact of Brexit on farmers has been compounded by the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine, with Mr Williams estimating that the price of fertiliser has risen 60 per cent since February 2022.

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But he fears things may yet get worse.

In December 2021, the UK Government signed a post-Brexit trade deal with Australia and New Zealand, paving the way for an influx of beef and lamb imports to Britain.

Farmers fear this may undercut the price of British produce, with the NFU warning it establishes an “unlevel playing field”, because Australian land is cheaper and more readily available, and because some of its regulations – such as on live exports and hormone treatment – are more relaxed, leading to economies of scale and lower production costs.

While the UK Government has said that no hormone-treated meat will be sold here, farmers fear the overall scale of the Australian industry will dwarf UK producers and drive prices down.

Mr Williams says he is “absolutely concerned” about the deal’s impact on British farming.

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a reality that we’re in a global marketplace, and you have to accept that… The issue comes to when products come in, especially red meats, at a much lower standard than what we’re held to. Because once you lower any product standards, basically all you do is cheapen the product,” he says.

“If people want an environmentally friendly farming system, that’s not a problem. But that comes at a cost. How can I compete if my meat is on the shelf in any supermarket, at a premium on Australian imported beef?”

Mr Williams also fears this could open the door to other post-Brexit trade agreements which hit British farmers in the wallet.

“These free-trade agreements are setting the bar so low for any other agreement that they want to do with any other country,” he says. “If you were a trading nation wanting to do a deal with the UK, why would you accept any higher than what Australia accepted?

“Promises were made that just couldn’t be realised. As an agricultural industry the biggest disappointment, I think, was the sheer speed and ease in which these trade deals were done without really looking into the effects they will have, not only on the agricultural industry, but on the food that will be put in front of people.”

‘Farmers have always been wary of Labour’

While Mr Williams says he doesn’t think Brexit will singlehandedly change the votes of Welsh farmers like him, he believes many will decide how to cast their ballot based on the parties’ plans to deal with the problems Brexit left behind.

Farmers have “always been wary of Labour”, he says, because they are widely perceived as an “urban government, which is never good for the countryside and farming”.

The track record of the Labour Government in Wales has also triggered some nervousness about what the party would do in Westminster.

“The past couple of years hasn’t gone well for us as an agricultural industry with Labour. Because we’re devolved in Wales, we’ve seen what a Labour Government has done or how it has managed things. It’s probably unfair to reflect that on a possible UK Labour government… But here in Wales, we’re not in a good place at the moment.

“It’ll be interesting to see the interaction between the two Labour governments, if indeed Labour comes into the UK Parliament,” he adds. “We’ve had ten years basically of the Welsh Labour Government blaming the Conservative UK Government that there’s no money.”

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Labour says it will “turbocharge rural growth and boost Britain’s food security”, reduce red tape at the borders through a new veterinary agreement with the EU, and protect farmers from being undercut in trade deals. It says it has no plans to introduce into England schemes for Welsh farmers.

But it is not only Sir Keir Starmer’s party feeling the heat in Wales. After more than two years working with Labour in areas such as farming, under a joint party agreement, Plaid Cymru may also suffer from the association, Mr Williams says.

“We’re heavily reliant on agriculture here. Agriculture shapes the way Wales looks and feels. Since we’ve left the EU, they’ve had the opportunity in Wales to bring out their own package of agricultural support that fits Wales. And unfortunately, it’s been an absolute disaster so far.”

Plaid Cymru says it participated in the agreement to “put forward the reality of farming in Wales”.

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It says is has secured many victories on behalf of farmers, including wins over funding, nitrate-vulnerable zones, and securing a pause and review of the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS). The scheme is being designed to replace a system under which EU payments were given to farmers for meeting certain environmental criteria.

Plaid says the Australia and New Zealand trade deals have “undercut” Welsh food producers. The party has promised to give Wales a veto over future trade deals.

Whatever the stripes of the new government after 4 July, Mr Williams says it must focus on making EU-UK trade as closely aligned as possible.

“Europe is still our biggest customer, and we’re a very, very young player in the international market from a trading point of view for agricultural products.” he adds.

“We need to basically make sure there’s the least friction on trade between [the UK and] the US and Europe as possible. Because that’s what we’re used to. We know our markets, they know our products. We’ve been in the EU since 1973. Why break a beautiful relationship?”

‘Brexit was a cliff-edge’

Hedd Pugh, who has farmed in Snowdonia for more than 40 years, says he lost thousands of pounds in income almost overnight.

“Personally I don’t think there’s been any good things being out of Europe. I’m sure that a lot of people who did vote to get out of Europe will regret it,” he adds. “The impact is going to be enormous over the next decade.”

He was one of many farmers who had tailored their business to benefit from the EU’s environmental scheme, Glastir, which offered farmers payments in return for hitting eco criteria.

Mr Pugh, who also voted remain, had spent considerable time adapting his farm to meet the requirements of the EU scheme, planting “miles and miles of new hedges” and thousands of trees.

“During the EU schemes you were told how many sheep you could keep on the mountain; that you couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. So you’ve geared up to that over the years and all of a sudden it comes to an end, it’s a cliff-edge,” he says.

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Farming is a devolved issue, and the Welsh Government has attempted to introduce a new scheme called Habitat Wales to replace the EU payments, which will last until a new Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) is introduced in 2026.

The EU scheme accounted for more than a quarter of Mr Pugh’s business, and he estimates he will receive only half as much under Habitat Wales, equating to a 12.5 per cent loss of income.

“I know some farmers in Wales who’ve lost just over 75 per cent,” he says. “It was a huge blow.”

The NFU describes the scheme as “nowhere near as attractive to Welsh farmers”, with,in most cases, the payments for environmental actions “considerably lower than the previous Glastir scheme.”

While the Welsh Government notes that more farmers have joined the new scheme than the former one, the NFU says that this “should be taken with a pinch of salt” given “many applied for the scheme due to the ongoing ambiguity over the future of agricultural support in Wales and without [at the time] knowing what the payment rates were going to be”.

Adding to the insecurity, say farmers, is that the conditions and rates of pay for the longer-term replacement SFS have not yet been determined.

And some elements of the scheme under consideration – such as a requirement for 10 per cent of land to go on trees, and a further 10 per cent for habitats – have been “very controversial”, the NFU says. Planning for the new SFS was paused earlier this year with new experts brought in to iron it out.

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Mr Pugh says the sheer number of question marks surrounding post-Brexit arrangements means farmers are unable to plan.

“Before Brexit, we knew that the budget was there, and we could plan. If that Habitat scheme comes to an end, that could be another 12.5 per cent drop in my income,” he adds.

Brexit has caused him many sleepless nights, he admits, forcing him to make difficult decisions about ways to cut back financially. But his concern is not only for the future of agriculture, but all that the industry brings with it.

When the money comes into agriculture and farming, we spend it in the shops. Here in Wales, we’ve got a Welsh language as well. That is very, very important. The Welsh Government need a million speakers by 2050, well, farmers and agriculture are key,” he says.

“The community around here, it’s a very strong community of Welsh speakers. A lot goes on here. If agriculture doesn’t thrive, the community and Welsh language in the rural areas won’t survive either. We’ve got a school, a church, a chapel, a pub. It’s very important we support all that.”

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In other parts of Wales, farmers say they have suffered with post-Brexit labour shortages, and have grown “increasingly frustrated at the five-year delays to border controls on imports of products of animal origin”, according to the NFU, which warns that the UK is “at risk of animal and plant health disease outbreaks”.

The union says that agriculture has become a “political football”, urging Cardiff and Westminster to work more closely after 4 July to give “long-term security and confidence” to farmers, to prioritise food security on the political agenda, and to “proceed with caution” on any future trade deals.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said that working with the farming industry and other stakeholders was “key to achieving our shared goal of ensuring that farming in Wales has a long, successful, and vibrant future”, where “our farmers produce the very best of Welsh food to the highest standards, while safeguarding our precious environment”.

It promised to “continue to listen to the sector and continue to work in partnership to finalise a scheme that works long-term.”

Back in Snowdonia, Mr Pugh is coy about how he will be voting, but says his priority is a strong voice for Wales and its farming industry in Westminster.

“After the general election, if Labour gets in, there’ll be a Labour Government in Cardiff and a Labour government in Westminster and they’re going to have to work together. They need a plan, not a year by year,” he says.

“In this area we’re Plaid Cymru and the MP is very good. I haven’t told you which way I’m going to vote. But it’s important that whoever goes as an MP in Wales fights for Wales, to keep Wales thriving.”

Brexit forced my farm to stop rearing sheep after 200 years - it lost us thousands (2024)
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