BUILTH WELLS, Wales — The lads were giving a final brushing to the woolly hindquarters of the rams, prettying the male sheep up for sale at auction here, hoping to get their best price.
But with Prime Minister Boris Johnson promising to leave the European Union in October — “do or die,” deal or no deal — Welsh sheep farmers are nervous.
Even as the auctioneers at the Royal Welsh Showground were barking — “Do I hear 420? 450? 500?” — the farmers were worrying what the future would bring.
An abrupt no-deal Brexit could be disastrous for Britain’s agriculture sector, beloved not only for its produce but also for its green fields, poetic hedgerows and John Constable-perfect livestock.
Welsh sheep farmers say they could have it especially bad. They fear that the sudden steep tariffs of a no-deal scenario would wipe out their export market, flood the domestic market and send local lamb prices tumbling. The farmers say they would need a massive government bailout to keep their farms from going under. And, even then, they might end up having to burn or bury millions of sheep as unsaleable meat.
On Thursday, anti-Brexit protesters herded sheep past the London offices where the government’s no-deal planning is underway.
But many farmers have supported Brexit. In the referendum three years ago, British farmers voted to leave the E.U. in droves, to “take back control” — to reduce their paperwork, they hoped, and remove regulations they thought onerous.
For the past 40 years, though, their livelihoods have been built around generous E.U. farming subsidies and free trade with the continent.
Britain is the third-biggest lamb exporter in the world, after Australia and New Zealand. Wales sells 40 percent of its lamb abroad, but pretty much all of it — 96 percent — goes to the E.U.
If Britain leaves the bloc with no deal and the trade relationship defaults to World Trade Organization rules, British lamb could overnight face trade tariffs of 40 to 50 percent on the continent, depending on the cut of meat and whether it is fresh or frozen.
“You can’t sell a lamb carcass to Europe with a 46 percent tariff,” said Richard Gwilliam, an auctioneer at the ram sale in Wales.
“That’s a price you can’t survive,” he said.
As Johnson huffs and bluffs toward a possible cliff edge on Brexit, all sorts of industries are getting twitchy: global financial services in the City of London, Land Rover assembly plants in the West Midlands and more. The national statistics office announced last week that economic growth last quarter contracted for the first time in nearly seven years. The pound proceeded to fall to a 10-year low against the euro, a two-year low against the dollar. (It has recovered slightly.) The government denies a recession is looming, but the evidence grows.
Brexit bristles with these coils of unintended consequences — and the Welsh sheep business tells one story.
There was widespread anger at the ram auction in Wales that a no-deal Brexit at the end of October could crash the domestic lamb market, driving prices down by a third, according to forecasts. If lamb that would sell for $100 today suddenly dropped to $60 at the same time exports plummeted, a lot of small operators would find themselves going bust.
An analysis by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, an industry group, concluded that income for Welsh farmers could fall by 109 percent, dipping into negative numbers.
When in Wales last month as part of a tour of the union, Johnson promised to “look after the farming sector” if there’s a no-deal Brexit.
“We will make sure that they have the support that they need — if there are markets that are going to be tricky, that we help them to find new markets. We have interventions that are aimed to support them and their incomes,” he said.
He wouldn’t get any more specific.
Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also wouldn’t shed any light on contingency plans for farmers, when asked for comment by The Washington Post.
However Brexit happens, the British government expects to have to do something, at least temporarily, to make up for the loss of E.U. farm subsidies. But in a no-deal Brexit, the situation could get so bad that the government would be called to intervene more dramatically — to buy millions of tons of meat, at deep discounts, to then sell to hospitals, schools and the military.
On the menu in British prisons next year? Maybe a lot of mutton curry.
There’s a hitch here, though. Welsh export lamb is often sold fresh. Meat dealers or the British government could store the lamb in freezers until the chaos of a free-fall Brexit calmed. But there’s not enough extra freezer space to go around right now. Chilled warehouses are already massively overbooked — and storing food and medicine in case of a no-deal Brexit.
“This whole thing is a complete disaster. We should keep trading, as we have over the last 40 years. It’s been good for everyone. To leave like this? It’s almost surreal, in its stupidity,” said Gerald Burrough, a sheep farmer from Devon who came to Wales to sell a couple of his rams.
A darker scenario, too, was on the minds of the farmers here: that they would be forced to kill sheep in the field because they cannot be sold.
“A mass slaughter? That would be crazy. To bury and burn sheep, a disposal scheme? We can’t do it. I know there’s talk of it. But it would be a disaster,” said Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association.
Stocker said that it was possible — but that farmers would do almost anything to avoid it.
Michael Gove, who is in charge of government no-deal Brexit planning, dismissed the prospect of a massive cull as “mutton-headed nonsense.”
But it wasn’t nonsense in Wales.
For many, the very idea evokes memories of the catastrophic 2001 foot-and-mouth-disease crisis, which led to the culling of millions of sheep. The British lamb industry took a decade to recover.
Johnson and his new team have talked up the opportunities of great new trade deals after Brexit, with Japan and the United States, for example.
But that wouldn’t help with the immediate impact of a hard Brexit.
“A trade deal could take years,” said Stocker, of the National Sheep Association.
It’s perhaps not that surprising that almost all of British lamb — 37,000 carcasses a week — goes to the E.U., a market of 500 million on the doorstep, just across the English Channel, reachable by refrigerated tractor-trailers. A fresh lamb carcass slaughtered at an abattoir in Wales on Monday could be on sale as rack of lamb at a French restaurant on Tuesday or sold by a Dutch butcher by Wednesday.
Farmers are skeptical about new markets being better markets.
“Rubbish,” said Burrough, the Devon sheep farmer. “We ship lamb to Europe in a half a day.” He said that neither Japan nor America could replace Europe’s taste for British lamb and that transporting to those countries would require airplanes or freighters.
Britain, and Wales in particular, grows lamb at a relatively natural pace, with ewes coming into estrus just once a year, to be mated with rams in the fields, to give birth in the spring, after five months of gestation. The cycle of life is timed to the hours of daylight and the prospect of new green grass.
Sheep farmers cannot alter, or easily stop, their production cycle. At the ram auction, farmers were having to make bets about where the market might be in six to nine months.
They didn’t like it.
Glasnant Morgan decided to buy four extra rams to breed to his stock of 800 ewes at his Pwllyrhwyaid Farm. He joked that “a little starvation” might make Britons understand the concerns of farmers.
“Welsh lamb is exported lamb,” he said. “If we face high tariffs, we simply won’t make it; we become unsellable.”
“I’m optimistic in everything — as a farmer, you have to be,” he continued. “But this Brexit has really got me down.”
He knows plenty of farmers who voted to leave. “They didn’t have a clue. They regret it now, I can tell you. The ones with debt will go under,” Morgan said. “We need Europe. We have Europe now. Why are we giving up Europe?”
Adam reported from London.