New statistics show just how vital sheep farming is to the south west’s economy and how important it is to the environment.

Across the region there are 7,389 sheep farms which have a total of around 3.1 million sheep. About half of these are breeding ewes. These farms employ 7,000 people directly and there are almost 23,000 other jobs linked to the industry, which contributes nearly £60m to the economy in terms of employment.

These are the findings of a new report compiled by the Rural Business School at Duchy College commissioned by the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Almost 111,000 hectares of land involved in sheep production is in an entry or higher level stewardship scheme and the report highlights how much sheep farming can help the environment, with song birds preferring the ‘mosaic of habitats’ it creates.

By controlling the bracken which would otherwise dominate uplands landscapes, ‘grazing by sheep plays an important role in the management of the uplands and ensures they remain accessible and visually as the public have come to expect’.

Across the south west the authors of the report estimate that sheep farmers have planted 627km of hedgerow, which, if they were laid end-to-end, would stretch from Penzance to Blackpool.

Every year the region produces just under 28,000 tonnes of sheep meat, worth £207m.

In order to keep the industry healthy, the report concludes there is a need for ‘more transparency’ further down the food chain, with processors and retailers being clear about the specifications they require from finished sheep and refraining from such practices as altering specifications half-way through the season.

The report also warns of the consequences of the likely effects of Brexit. Brexit could put the sector in a ‘very vulnerable position’, because of the likelihood of reduced BPS payments, which many sheep farms depend on, and lower prices for sheep meat, due to increased domestic supply if less is exported to the EU.

Colin Rowland, a Devon sheep farmer and chairman of the South West NFU livestock board, said: “In this region, we grow grass extremely efficiently. We have a relatively warm climate, more hours of sunshine than any other part of the UK and plenty of rain – ideal for raising West Country lamb on a diet which has the added benefit of being a source of omega-3, vitamin E and many more vital nutrients in the human diet.

“But the report also shows that the sheep sector has the potential to be the hardest hit by Brexit, with challenges to rural funding, the availability of labour in the processing sector and the damage that could be done if we do not have access to the EU export market and fail to gain new markets for our sheep meat globally."