Ireland is nearly 400% self-sufficient in sheep meat production, and more than 80% of sheep meat produced is exported. Sheep farming contributes to economic, environmental and social sustainability in rural areas where land usage options are limited. Globaly sheep production contributes more than 7% to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, little is known about the emissions profile of sheep farming population in general. Taking part in the LIFE Green Sheep project on a whole territory basis is very important as it provides insight into Irish sheep meat’s Carbon Footprint.

The Irish sheep industry

Sheep farming in Ireland is primarily for meat production. Ireland is the largest net exporter of sheep meat in Europe, and the fourth largest exporter world wide. The main markets for Irish sheep meat are France, UK, Germany and Belgium. Ewe numbers in general are on the decline in Ireland and across the EU. Currently the sheep population is 2.6 million breeding ewes, and has declined from a peak of 4.8 million breeding ewes in 1992.

Prime lamb production is predominantly from grass-based systems of production in the lowlands, with most lambing occurring in March and April. The mean ewe productivity is 1.36 lambs reared/ewe joined. On the hills, lambs are born in April and May and mean ewe productivity is 0.9 lambs reared/ewe joined.

Factors influencing the efficiency of prime lamb production

The weight of lamb sold per ewe joined (to the ram) is the main factor affecting profitability at farm level. Changing ewe genotype is the cheapest and often the only method available to improve lamb output per ewe. Altering the ewe genotype can increase the number of lambs reared per ewe joined by up to 0.4. Increasing the feed value of silage offered to ewes housed during mid and late pregnancy can increase ewe body weight and condition score at lambing, and lamb weight at birth and weaning. Each 0.5 kg increase in lamb birth weight increases weight at weaning (100 days age) by 1.5 kg. Improving grazing management by matching grass supply with demand maintains swards of high digestible herbage and high lamb growth rates. Rearing male lambs entire increases lamb growth and reduces age at slaughter by 16 days relative to castrated male lambs.

Why did we get involved in the LIFE Green Sheep project?

Whilst data from the Teagasc National Farm Survey show that the sheep sector is responsible for circa 7% of aggregate GHG emissions from land-based agricultural systems, little is known about the emissions profile of sheep farming especially farm level emissions and the carbon footprint of sheep meat production.  These metrics may significantly differ between lowland and upland production systems.

Average greenhouse gas (GHG) emission of Irish sheep production

The Teagasc Sheep Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) model is used to estimate the carbon footprint of Irish sheep meat for the LIFE Green Sheep project. The Teagasc Sheep LCA model is designed for Irish sheep systems, which focus on meat production. This model evaluates every stage of production until the  animals exit the farm gate. Detailed farm and systems level data from 179 Irish sheep farms (lowland and hill ) was collected through the Teagasc National Farm Survey. The average emissions from Irish sheep farms per kg of carcass weight (CW) and per sheep grazing area were 32.3 kg CO2 eq per CW and 5,303 kg CO2 eq per ha, respectively. Including CO2 sequestration by grassland reduces GHG emissions significantly to 21.92 kg CO2 eq per kg of CW and 3,892 kg CO2 eq per ha. The emissions can be reduced by implementing carbon mitigation strategies on the farm.

How we can reduce GHG emission

In 2023,Teagasc published its latest Marginal Abatement Cost Curve Strategy. This is an overarching strategy to assist the Irish agricultural sector to achieve its GHG sectoral targets for 2030 (25% reduction from a 2018 base) as set down under the Climate Action Act 2021. The mitigation measures proposed in this strategy are relevant for all the livestock sectors, including sheep. Relevant mitigation measures for the sector include changes in grazing management practices, optimising soil fertility leading to reduced chemical N usage, use of clover or multispecies swards, low emission slurry spreading equipment,  protected urea fertiliser and feed additives, and changes to diet  formulation.

Challenges in taking this project forward

All farmers, including sheep farmers, should be treated as partners and stakeholders in the grand challenge of climate change. There is anecdotal evidence that farmers feel like they are being demonised and talked down to in the climate change debate, especially compared to other industries (fossil fuel producers in particular) and that their role as food producers is not valued or appreciated. Farmers, especially those in upland areas, tend to farm extensively with low level of inputs and market based outputs yet they tend to be associated with high level of public good provision, such as biodiversity. Hence, there may be little opportunity for  extensive farms to reduce emissions.

Short, medium and long term interest of the project for the sector

Due to topography and or local biophysical conditions many areas are only suitable for sheep production. As Ireland is nearly 400% self-sufficient in sheep meat 77,000 tonnes of sheep meat was exported in 2022, with an export value of €470.8 million. In a competitive marketplace, the carbon footprint of sheep meat production is becoming an important point of choice differentiation for consumers.

Written by Bragina, C. Buckley, T.W.J. Keady Teagasc, Mellow Campus, Athenry, Co. Galway, Ireland