It’s funny, whilst we would never go into a supermarket and ask for simply “a bottle of wine”, as there is simply too much choice, yet our only choice of sheep meat there is generic ‘Lamb’.
Just as wine has a choice of grape varieties and terroirs, so sheep meat has a range of potential differences, although to most large retailers, it is a standard commodity, lamb, bought from the cheapest source. The supermarkets are largely unwilling and probably unable (due to scale) to differentiate, other than regional sourcing, between types of sheep meat beyond the standard lamb. They do this to offer their customers a uniform product. Compared with the information available from supermarkets about individual wines, that for lamb is pitiful.
And this is a retrograde step. Many Victorians would think us very ignorant about the meat we were eating. They would argue with great passion about the breed which offered the best flavour, and what was the superior landscape for producing the best mutton eating experience.
What Variety is there in Sheep Meat?
There are four main variables to consider in sheep meat.
Firstly, breeds. We have a priceless treasure-trove of breeds to choose from in the UK – the largest in the world.
Then there is age. As an animal ages, so the flavour of its meat becomes increasingly deep and complex (compare veal to beef). Hogget (1-2years) and mutton (over 2 years), taste increasingly different to lamb. These maturer meats are often difficult to find for consumers and caterers, yet are normally a revelation when they try them. Indeed, mature beef is a new phenomenon in both the UK and US. For most sheep producers, older ewes are ‘disposed of’ almost as a waste product, yet if properly treated from farm to table, their mutton is a superb meat. In fact, the Victorians ate more mutton than beef.
Thirdly, diet. We are now understanding more about the impact of an animal’s diet on the quality of its meat. Grass fed, for example has proven health benefits. Combine this with increased age, and the impact becomes considerable. Mutton, for example has the highest ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids of any meat.
Finally, landscape. A sheep’s diet is closely related to landscape, as this often determines the available feed. And according to many Victorians, the wild flora of our uplands or salt marshes was a key ingredient to some of our best sheep meat. Breeds have been developed in harmony with local landscapes, and over the centuries have also shaped those landscapes into what they are today.
Why Not Offer Variety?
Why should the industry’s marketing resources concentrate solely on marketing commodity lamb, lovely as it is? Why not celebrate real differences, and raise awareness of our glorious native breeds, combined with our varied landscapes, traditional farming and the change in flavours as animals become more mature? Importantly, for farmers, this can offer the opportunity to add value to their flock. Back to our wine analogy, just think what wine choice we had in the 1960s and 70s – Blue Nun or Mateus Rose, if I remember correctly – and compare that to now! Why not a blossoming of sheep meat types?
The Risk of Losing a Priceless National Asset
One danger of the current system is that the homogeneous nature of supermarket meat is putting at risk our huge variety of native breeds, through concentration on just a few, often input-focused, breeding objectives and standardised products. With climate change, who knows when we may need some of the specific traits these native breeds offer? It would be sheer madness to lose them simply because the supermarkets may demand their own hybrids. And yet, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust warns that 24 breeds of sheep are already classified as rare and endangered. Preserving limited sample animals through the work of breed enthusiasts will ensure some preservation of genes, as will gene banks. But there is a danger that these are on too small a scale to be genetically sustainable.
Interest in food provenance has escalated hugely over the past 20 years, and we now have a great opportunity to offer consumers a real choice of sheep meat.
So, what about a Southdown lamb reared on the natural grasslands of the Sussex chalk downs, or maybe some wether mutton from a Hebridean Blackface reared in the Western Isles of Scotland? Offering consumers these various gems of our sheep industry in more positive and organised ways not only enhances consumer choice, but it also offers added value for producers.
Our independent meat infrastructure will still just about support the production of a wide range of premium products, produced carefully for specific markets, and communicated well to the consumer, outside the supermarket commodity system. It requires extra effort, but adding value can make it worthwhile. It also offers great opportunities for collaborative marketing, and retaining income within local communities.
Of course, there are many producers already doing a superb job of this across the country (see how to buy here).
A New Organisation
Consumer interest is on the up, and increasingly, caterers are looking for an interesting story to attach to their dishes. However, what is lacking is general public awareness and understanding, together with some serious support for the diversity of sheep meat along short, independent supply chains. Now is surely the time to get behind our innovative producers and independent retailers and support their efforts with a coherent strategy!
A national organisation, backed by the National Sheep Association, and including other stakeholders along the supply chain should be established to take forward this idea of celebrating variety in sheep meat.
A Sustainable Future
Making native breeds commercially viable is probably the only way we can keep individual breeds genetically viable, and ensure this priceless asset is available to future generations. Boosting farmers' financial viability by adding value, enables them to viably maintain the environment and landscape which produced them. Enhanced incomes also give remote rural populations and their family farms a helping hand in remaining socially viable.
Eat it to keep it - all!
© Bob Kennard July 2106