The National Sheep Association (NSA) has been shocked by comments made at the weekend by a Government minister that it said revealed a lack of understanding about sheep farming.

Defra secretary George Eustice appeared on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show on November 15 on the subject of EU negotiations, Brexit trade deals and likely tariffs but his remarks have angered the NSA.

At a time when key decisions are being made on the future of British agriculture, the NSA said it was "extremely concerning" to hear the lack of understanding shown by Mr Eustice, who the NSA believes, having spent five years as farming minister, should have a better knowledge of the UK’s sheep farming enterprises.

NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “Mr Eustice’s comments will have angered many of our nation’s sheep farmers, failing to identify the unique and varied nature of sheep enterprises across the country.

“To begin with, to suggest that many of our sheep farmers are mixed farmers is wrong. This assumption will enrage sheep farmers across the UK who have structured their farms to focus on sheep, and it will particularly antagonise our devolved nations where the landscape includes more remote areas of countryside, especially suited to sheep, and where buildings, machinery and farm infrastructure simply would not suit a sudden switch to cattle farming.

“The fact we have many sheep farmers, especially younger farmers and new entrants to the sector, who run their sheep on arable farms and on short-term grass lets was completely ignored – simply switching to cattle would be impossible for them.

“I find it hard to think that George Eustice really believes what he said, and this interview leaves us thinking his comments could either be part of creating a ‘We don’t care’ attitude to bolster trade negotiations or – and this would be highly concerning – that it exposes an underlying willingness to see our sheep industry go through a restructure to reduce its size, scale and diversity.”

In the interview, the secretary of state accepted that the sheep sector would be one of the hardest hit if a deal cannot be secured in the next few weeks. The NSA is increasingly concerned that of all negotiations on non-EU trade deals, those progressing at fastest pace are with New Zealand and Australia. These are deals that offer no market opportunity for the sheep sector and pose the greatest risk to the UK’s sheep farmers.

NSA chairman Bryan Griffiths said: “The firm prices UK sheep farmers have enjoyed this year have been driven by global demand for our product; supply has scarcely kept up with demand.

“Many people may not realise – although George Eustice definitely should – the UK is the third largest exporter of sheep meat globally and, at the same time, some 65 per cent of our production is sold on our home domestic market.”

NSA Scottish region chairman Jen Craig said: “For a minister to suggest on national television our mixed farmers could diversify into beef in the event of the lamb price crashing is quite frankly a laughable response. The industry has been calling for support packages to be put in place for compensation for the sheep sector in the event of a no-deal.”