LAMB GLORIOUS LAMB

We’ve written quite a bit about sheep and their wool, but what about our biggest use of sheep – for Lamb?  The next three blogs will be about this amazing food, but today we’re going to start with some basics.

There are currently 85 million sheep on 830,000 farms across the EU – more than in Australia and New Zealand.  Despite this, Europe is a net importer of sheep providing only 85% of its needs. The largest producers of Lamb in Europe are the UK, Spain, France, Romania, Ireland and Italy. Ireland is the largest net exporter of sheep meat. This points to incredible potential for this sector. (Statistics from Sheepnet.com).  In 2018 Ireland’s sheep meat sector was valued at €315m up 15% on 2017 (www.agriland.ie)

Sheep have an important economic and environmental role in ‘less favoured areas’ providing employment and income, food from otherwise unusable land and acting as a positive environmental impact - fertilising and improving soil structure through their faeces and wool, keeping down brush and weeds and thus maintaining plant, insect and animal biodiversity.  Traditional sheep farming is therefore highly sustainable and for this reason from Ireland to Greece the hilly areas of Europe are dotted with sheep. 

Grass fed lamb is highly prized.  It tastes better than grain fed animals (grass promotes the particular fatty acid that creates the lamb taste) and has been shown to be better for us, with fewer unhealthy fats and higher levels of omega-3 oils, minerals and trace elements than grain fed lamb.  

Lamb is cheaper to produce than Beef as sheep can be completely grass fed, and the hardiest breeds of sheep are pretty self-sufficient requiring less farm infrastructure.  Sheep are intelligent animals and can be taught to come when called.  As they are naturally herd animals this is particularly useful when looking after them. They are usually gentle and sometimes are even kept as pets, but that is not to say that you shouldn’t watch out for a ram or a ewe with her lambs. 

There are currently 85 million sheep on 830,000 farms across the EU – more than in Australia and New Zealand.  Despite this, Europe is a net importer of sheep providing only 85% of its needs. The largest producers of Lamb in Europe are the UK, Spain, France, Romania, Ireland and Italy.  Ireland is the largest net exporter of sheep meat.  (Statistics from Sheepnet.com).  In 2018 Ireland’s sheep meat sector was valued at €315m up 15% on 2017 (www.agriland.ie)

In 1992, the European Union brought in legislation to protect the reputation of regional food products such as Champagne and Parma Ham.  By creating special designations, the aim was to promote business in rural areas and help food producers to get the best price for their premium products.  This is an exciting opportunity for food producers to attain a globally recognised and respected mark of excellence for their product which can both create and expand market opportunities.  Waterford Blaas are a case in point.  This food was little known outside of Ireland, but they can now be found on airlines and in hotels and restaurants far outside the EU (Irish Times) and are protected from competitors by their designation. The designations are:

PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) To receive PGI status, the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured (prepared, processed or produced) within the specific region and thus acquire unique properties (Wikipedia).  Irish examples include Waterford Blaas & Connemara Hill Lamb.

PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) To receive PDO status, the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region and thus acquire unique properties.  Irish examples include Imokilly Regato Cheese and Oriel Sea Salt.

TSG (Traditional Specialities Guaranteed) identifies products with a traditional composition and mode of production that have been established for at least 30 years.  It does not need to be from a particular area but must have a ‘specific character’ and either its raw materials, production method or processing must be ‘traditional’ (Wikipedia). A UK example is meat from the Gloucester Old Spot pig.

Qualification is strict.  Products must be clearly defined in look, feel, taste, production, and speciality. They must demonstrate a codified production tradition and be of high quality - certified by external bodies of control in order to achieve and retain these designations.  For example, Roquefort cheese must be made from milk of a certain breed of sheep and matured in the natural caves near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the Aveyron region of France, where it is colonised by the fungus Penicillium roqueforti that grows in these caves (Wikipedia).  Connemara Hill Lamb must be pedigree, born and raised in a Connemara Mayo Blackfaced/Brecked Ewe flock and on land farmed within the geographical area.  The animal’s weight, meat colour and texture, flavour and availability are also defined.  (www.agriculture.gov.ie). 

 Despite the huge benefits certification could bring to the Irish food market, to date only 8 products have applied and been awarded a designation compared with 270 in Italy, 219 in France and 181 in Spain (Irish Times).  It’s not really understood why, but Marian Harkin (MEP) feels that perhaps the benefits may not have been promoted sufficiently (Irish Times).  It’s also a long and daunting technical process that requires a number of producers to be on the same page in business terms so that they can group together to be eligible.  However, it’s well recognised amongst those that have successfully applied that these designations are the “ultimate stamp in provenance” that “de-risk” your product while promoting you on the European and global stage (Declan Walsh/Irish Times).

 EU designation is not the only way that a food producer can differentiate and promote their product.  Achill Mountain Lamb is very successfully promoting its high-quality Mayo Blackface Mountain Lamb by aligning with other marks of quality such as Good Food Ireland, Craft Butchers and ‘Great Taste’.  Origin Green is “Ireland’s food and drink sustainability programme”.  Led by Bord Bia, the aim is to place Irish produce as the “first choice globally” because of its sustainable production that supports businesses and local communities. By 2017 close to 90% of Irish food exports were members of Origin Green (Irish Examiner).  Slow Food Ireland is championing the ethos of ‘good clean and fair food’ in Ireland and around the globe.  They support “local food traditions, encourage people to think about the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world”.

What is clear is that governments, organisations, producers and consumers are all beginning to realise the value in sustainably produced, traditionally made products and there are increasing moves to distinguish products in order to create a route to market, ensure the best price, and also to encourage sustainable food production practices on a wider scale. As one of the most sustainably produced and versatile meats that also has a positive impact on the landscape, Sheep farming and Lamb is an important part of this movement.

There are a number of Lamb producers in Europe with PGI or PDO designation:

Connemara Hill Lamb PGI. “The name Connemara Hill Lamb is reserved exclusively for hill lamb born and reared within the designated area by registered members of Connemara Hill Lamb Ltd, and is protected against imitation, exploitation or misuse.  The group was founded 1999 to market and promote a unique lamb indigenous to the Connemara region which dates back to the 1800s.  Prior to 1999 there were no readily available markets for Connemara Hill Lamb.  Connemara Hill Lamb matures at a slower rate gaining the benefits of their natural habitat.  The result is a lamb of specialised tast, quality and flavour imbued from a diet of natural herbs, heathers and grasses unique to the Connemara region.”

Shetland Lamb PDO “All lambs come from pure bred Shetland flocks raised on the isles and are processed and packed by Shetland Livestock Marketing Group. The lamb is less than 12 months old and is produced and slaughtered in Shetland.  They are grass fed and so are mainly available between September and December.  Shetland lamb was found to have significantly higher levels of a derivative of Omega-6 CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) when compared to levels normally found in lamb.  CLA has been found to be an agent that prevents the onset of cancer.

Welsh Lamb PGI “It's the product of a uniquely beautiful landscape that has been blessed for centuries with the purest of natural ingredients - clean air, sweet spring water, fresh grass and fragrant heather. This blend of nature's finest, coupled with traditional farming practices that span generations, have helped produce high quality meat to be consumed around the world.”  Welsh Lamb PGI must be born and reared in Wales and slaughted in an approved abattoir. It must be under a year old, achieve at least an R3H grade and be from traditional Welsh Breeds. More than 15000 sheep holdings are registered to produce Welsh PGI meat. (www.fwi.co.uk) Katie Davies, Welsh Sheep Farmer 

Isle of Man Manx Loaghtan Lamb PDO “Meat from pure bred Manx Loaghtan sheep, registered to the Breed Society, which have been born raised and slaughtered o the Isle of Man.  The meat is fine grained, less fatty and darker than meat from more commercial breeds.  It has a distinct gamey flavour. The animals are reared on farms practising traditional forms of husbandry. (Office Journal of the European Union).