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Brexit could put Britain’s lambing industry to the slaughter

SHROPSHIRE IS AS close to the beating heart of England as you can get. The county towns boast some of England’s finest Norman castles and black-and-white houses. Wenlock Edge and the Long Mynd are studies in pastoral beauty—“blue remembered hills”, in A.E. Housman’s immortal phrase in “A Shropshire Lad”.

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It is hardly surprising that Housman’s “land of lost content” should be a Brexit stronghold. Some 57% of Salopians voted to leave. Four of the county’s five MPs are pro-Brexit; one of them, North Shropshire’s Owen Paterson, is about as hard-core as you can get. Yet Brexit represents the biggest threat in decades to Shropshire’s content—and not just to the handful of factories that supply parts for the car industry in the neighbouring Black Country, but also to the county’s traditional rural economy.

Sheep have always been at the centre of Shropshire’s farming. In the Middle Ages they paid for the black-and-white mansions and over-sized churches that add to the area’s charm. Today a third of Britain’s sheep graze within 100 miles of the centre of the county. Once or twice a week market towns such as Ludlow and Knighton resound to the age-old sounds of a sheep auction. A significant proportion of all these sheep end up in an abattoir in Craven Arms owned by a company called Euro Quality Lambs.

The firm is a testimony to how efficient the industry has become. The abattoir slaughters 14,000 animals a week—25,000 in the run-up to Christmas—through a ruthless division of labour. A stunner stuns the sheep, a knife-wielder slits their throats, a head-specialist removes their heads and a flank-man strips their skins. Nothing goes to waste: the stomach contents are turned into manure, the bones are ground into powder for cat food and the blood is used for biofuel. Euro Lambs also shows how international the industry has become. Eighty per cent of its carcasses are exported to the continent, the bulk to France, and 60% of the company’s employees are eastern Europeans. But that is only the beginning of it. Euro Lambs is owned by a Pakistani family, the Khalids, who came to Craven Arms via Ireland in 1992 and spotted a market for high-quality halal meat. The man who slits the animals’ throats is a practising Muslim who utters a prayer as he slices.

This is a remarkable story of ethnic enterprise. Euro Lambs has a turnover of £66m ($85m) a year, with no debt to speak of. It is also a story of cultural assimilation. The parents at the local school display the demography of a big city rather than a town of 2,500. Pakistani women in headscarves rub shoulders with eastern Europeans and Salopians. Next to the abattoir the Khalids have built a mosque with a green dome and the beginnings of an Islamic garden. The school caretaker, a Craven Arms man born and bred, reflects the mood when he describes the Pakistani population as “the best of the bunch…darlings they are…polite and nice.”

This is partly because Craven Arms welcomes anybody who brings jobs. Despite its bucolic surroundings it is a run-down former railway hub that is in danger of degenerating into a collection of tattoo parlours and takeaways. It is also because the Khalids have worked hard at fitting in. They have bought houses to put up a quarter of their workers. They have also appointed an English-born imam, Sohayb Peerbhai, who makes efforts to bring people together, sitting on the local school’s board of governors and encouraging young Muslims in big cities to visit rural Shropshire.

All this is now threatened by political incompetence. The Khalids regard a no-deal Brexit as the biggest risk their business has confronted. They would face a 40-45% tariff on lamb that would quickly kill the continental market. They would find it harder to recruit eastern European workers (two have already decided to go home). They would also encounter licensing problems: when Bagehot visited the abattoir, the government-appointed vet on site was a Romanian who had EU-recognised qualifications gained by training in Britain and Romania. Rizvan Khalid, the managing director, compares a no-deal Brexit to the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 that froze exports for 11 months and reduced his company to a one-and-a-half-day week. “No deal would be a self-imposed foot-and-mouth epidemic,” he argues, “only much worse.”

Brexit has already taken a heavy toll in uncertainty. The Khalids have been planning to move their operation from the middle of Craven Arms to a site farther out. But they can’t justify spending the £20m that this will cost until they know what is happening. And a Brexit that involves leaving the EU’s customs union could also be damaging. Euro Lambs’ ability to compete at the premium end of the market depends on being able to get its carcasses to Paris within a couple of days; any longer and they would have to be frozen, which would cost them their premium status.

To the slaughter

Do these threats matter to anybody other than the Khalids and their employees? Brexiteers might argue that the Khalids’ labour-intensive production line is an example of British employers’ habit of relying on cheap imported labour rather than mechanisation. They might say that Euro Lambs’ fixation on the EU shows a lack of global vision. Some might even claim that Shropshire would be better off exploiting its natural beauty than slaughtering sheep.

But none of this really adds up. It is harder to automate the slaughter of sheep than that of pigs or chickens because sheep come in so many different sizes. Upland sheep are much smaller and scrawnier than their lowland cousins. The global market is brutal: whereas Euro Lambs can sell at a premium on the continent because it doesn’t have to freeze its products, the non-EU market will force it to go head-to-head against frozen New Zealand lambs. Abandoning the sheep industry entirely would not only kill off much of Shropshire’s rural life. It would mean that the upland hills, deprived of their woolly lawnmowers, would degenerate into scrubland. A threat to Shropshire’s sheep industry is also a threat to A.E. Housman’s blue remembered hills.