Judging by the reaction of the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) and the UK National Sheep Association (NSA), they agree with acerbic assessment in the Financial Times (FT) of the UK trade deals with Australia and New Zealand as trade capitulations.

The FT writer describes them as “giving the Australian and New Zealand negotiators pretty much all the agricultural market access that they asked for” and shafting British farmers.

Earlier this week, Ian Mc Donald from Quality Meat Scotland highlighted the volatility of the Chinese pigmeat market as an illustration of what could happen if that extended to beef and sheep.

He said: “If Australia and NZ’s currently strong beef and sheepmeat export trade with China was to come under threat for any reason, the UK could become an outlet for this substantial volume of product once these FTAs enter force.”

Deal done

That moment has now arrived in the case of Australia and we can expect New Zealand to follow.

There is considerable political stress between Australia and China and a substantial drop in volumes of beef and sheepmeat going from Australia to China in 2021.

This has been somewhat masked, in that Australian supplies were at their lowest this century during herd and flock rebuilding following drought.

This will complete over the next year or so and Australia will again need all its export markets operating to full capacity.

Unlike New Zealand, Australia has had minuscule access for tariff-free beef and lamb to the EU when the UK was a member, amounting to 7,150t for beef and 19,186t of sheepmeat, a negligible amount compared with the 228,000t sheepmeat quota that New Zealand has.

This is what is particularly sensitive for the NSA in the UK. It makes the possibility of Australian sheepmeat a very real prospect for the first time.

Bad for UK, worse for Ireland

There is no doubt that the open-door policy for access to Australia in this deal is a risk to the value of the UK market for beef and sheepmeat.

However, it is an even bigger threat to Irish farmers because the strong allegiance of UK supermarkets to British beef and lamb guarantees a relative premium for both British beef and lamb and this includes Northern Irish farmers.

This point was reinforced by Meat and Livestock Australia when it told a House of Commons committee earlier this year that it was the UK market for imported beef and sheepmeat that it was targeting, not British produce.

Ireland supplied close to 80% of the UK’s beef imports in 2021, so it is clear where the greatest vulnerability lies.

UK farmers will retain full tariff-free access for beef and lamb to EU markets, so the knock-on effect of the UK-Australia trade deal will be felt throughout the EU27 if UK beef and lamb seeks export markets should the UK home market become over supplied.

This is the inevitable outworking of Brexit and the reality is that whatever level of damage it causes British farmers, it will be worse for their Irish counterparts.