Ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to be able to join you here on the edge of the glorious North York Moors where sheep farming is such a major part of the social, environmental and economic tapestry. I must say that I can hardly believe that it is now some five years since I first had the idea that there might be real benefit to our struggling upland sheep farmers, many of them family farms, by re-establishing mutton as a quality meat.
It all came about when I visited a most remarkable organization just across the border in County Durham called the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services and I am so thrilled Carl Stephenson from U.T.A.S.S. is here today. It was just after the dreadful Foot and Mouth outbreak and I met some farmers who told me of the desperately low prices they were receiving for their older ewes. It occurred to me that perhaps by reawakening an interest in mutton amongst consumers we could find a way to increase the dwindling incomes of our hill farmers. And so the idea of the Mutton Renaissance Campaign was born. And here I do want to pay a very special tribute to the organizations which have worked with me so tirelessly on this project.
The Academy of Culinary Arts, in the shape of Sara Jayne Stanes, Brian Turner, John Williams and Matt Exley of Kabassa, has been in the vanguard, alongside the National Sheep Association and the very special John Thorley. We have also had remarkable support from producers and wholesalers, not least Tim Wilson and I would just like to congratulate Tim and his team for the wonderful condition of his stock and the style with which he has presented it today. And, of course, we have had utterly invaluable help from the English Beef and Lamb Executive and their Welsh counterpart, Hybu Cig Cymru. To all of them, I do want to express my most heartfelt gratitude and I particularly want to congratulate EBLEX on the wider innovative work they are doing to promote all red meats and encourage farmers to think about marketing. I am hugely grateful for their help today.
In some ways there are similarities today with where we were in 2002. We’ve had another Foot and Mouth outbreak, fortunately better contained, but which has had desperately serious consequences for livestock farmers, many of whom had barely recovered from the appalling floods of last Summer. And then there was the arrival of Bluetongue with all the extra costs which its control entails for livestock producers. So we are in no doubt just how bad things are for some farmers even now. The lamb market has suffered particularly with frighteningly low prices, and the same applies to cattle and pigs. And this desperate situation reminds us of the importance of what we are doing here today. Look around you at the view; recall the beautiful villages and scenery through which you drove to reach this farm; consider the communities that are intricately woven into the very fabric of the landscape. None of this happened by accident.
The Churches, pubs, village shops and schools all the elements which make places like the North York Moors as precious and special as they are are founded upon a thriving farming community. We need to do everything we can to preserve it because this landscape depends on continuity of management and a need to work in harmony with what Nature provides. But this is not about charity. Our farmers are amongst the best in the world and much of what they produce is top quality Tim Wilson is a perfect example of the sort of forward-thinking farmer we need to encourage who puts quality first and understands about marketing. And, for what it is worth, I happen to believe this is the only way forward. Our livestock farmers are struggling with ever rising feed costs and seemingly ever-downward pressures on their returns.
This situation is not sustainable and if we want a thriving livestock sector on which the beauty of our countryside depends, we need to find ways to help farmers improve their marketing, work more closely together, focus on quality rather than quantity and gain a growing understanding of the true meaning of sustainable farming. This has to be the way forward, not least because, at last, consumers are beginning to demand it, which is exactly what Tim Wilson has found. And it is exactly this approach that drives my mutton renaissance campaign.
My original plan was that we would be here to launch the 2007 mutton season, but Foot and Mouth put paid to that. Instead, we are in the middle of the season and, while some of you might think that mutton is a year-round product, the reality is that true mutton the best mutton is seasonal and that season begins in the Autumn and runs through to March. I always think there is a particular kind of pleasure from eating seasonally... And, of course, mutton is so well-suited to the Autumn and Winter as we shall see! I can only tell you that I serve it all the time at the various dinners I host and, unlike with most other dinners, there is seldom a morsel left!
Since the Campaign started we have come a long way. We now have more than 400 businesses involved in the campaign, which includes 150 farms, over 70 abattoirs and butchers and over 100 restaurants and pubs. There may still be some animated discussions on what breed makes the best mutton, what the ideal age is, whether a wether is best and if the carcase should be hung for two, three, four or five weeks etc.; but there is a growing understanding that the slow maturing breeds normally found in the hills and uplands definitely provide the preferred taste and texture. And we have learned that it is essential to hang it for at least a couple of weeks and preferably longer.
Above all, we have been very careful from the start of the Campaign to stress that Renaissance Mutton is a meat of the highest quality. Any old sheep just won’t do. That is why we have spent much time working with butchers and chefs. The meat has to be of the finest to ensure a first-rate eating experience for the consumer.
As with all new products, the other trick that we have had to pull off is to match the growth in demand with the available supply and to maintain the balance between the two. So far we’ve seen a steady growth in both which suggests that the campaign is somewhere near the mark and, as Patron of the Mutton Renaissance Club, I have to say this gives me some cause for satisfaction. Certainly, the excellent interim report by David Croston, the former Chief Executive of EBLEX suggests that we are getting it right and that the campaign should bring real benefit to sheep farmers and, of course, consumers!
Before I end, I do just want to pay particular tribute to the North York Moors National Park Authority. They have been enormously supportive of the Mutton Renaissance Campaign, understanding the role of the farmer in maintaining the landscape so beloved by visitors. I am enormously encouraged by the way in which the farmers and the Authority work in partnership with Natural England to deliver the Sheep Wildlife Enhancement Scheme. This brings real benefits to farmers and to the heather moors. If they are well managed, grouse and other ground-nesting birds flourish and moorland fires are prevented.
And so the virtuous circle is complete. The heightened profile for quality mutton is beginning to provide a price benefit which is improving the economics of sheep farming. That is the place we started from and, thanks to the remarkable team who have supported me from the start, it is now becoming a reality. Long may it contribute to improving the prosperity of our upland farmers and now, thanks to Brian Turner and John Williams with help from some of the best chefs in the country; Phil Corrick, John Dorricott, Idris Caldora and Michael Coaker; let us enjoy some of this year’s mutton.