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Beef farmers defend their industry amid 'meat-free' climate change debate

Andrew and Ian Spinks with their herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris Hill

Andrew and Ian Spinks with their herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris Hill

Chris Hill

Beef farmers have leapt to the defence of their "proper sustainable Norfolk supply chain" following debates on the impact of global meat production on climate change.

Part of the Spinks family's herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris HillPart of the Spinks family's herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris Hill

This week's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that current land use is fuelling greenhouse gas emissions, and sets out how diets balancing grains, vegetables and pulses with animal-based food produced in sustainable systems could help tackle the problem.

It sparked discussions on the global impact of livestock on air pollution and the environment, and debates about whether meat-free diets could be a long-term solution.

But the Spinks family says this "simplistic" argument overlooks the ecological benefits of livestock - particularly in their own low food-mile system in the Bure valley.

Ian Spinks, his wife Carol, and two sons Andrew and James are all partners in the family business, Mill Meadow Livestock, which has a 125-strong herd of Stabiliser cattle, including 70 breeding cows and two bulls, on 120 acres of rented grassland at Oxnead, near Aylsham.

Part of the Spinks family's herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris HillPart of the Spinks family's herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris Hill

The animals spend the summer on grazing marshes, with the young bulls fattened at a south Norfolk estate before being slaughtered within the same county at HG Blake's abattoir.

And during the winter months, the cows go onto arable land where they graze a specially-planted kale crop, which captures carbon and retains nutrients in the soil to benefit the following commercial crops.

Andrew Spinks, who is also an agricultural business consultant with Brown and Co, said: "The message that the academics are putting forward misses the point of beef production in the UK, which is utilising grassland. We are not pulling down rainforests in Brazil, which is what they seem to be focusing on. "They are demonising what I feel is a quite a good industry. It is so frustrating when you hear this.

"We are converting grass, which we cannot eat, into something we can eat which is highly nutritious and a source of protein.

Part of the Spinks family's herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris HillPart of the Spinks family's herd of Stabiliser cattle at Oxnead, near Aylsham. Picture: Chris Hill

"They also create this countryside and the meadows which hundreds of people enjoy. This is all under an environmental stewardship scheme - we are not putting chemicals on here, as it is all environmentally managed grassland."

Ian Spinks, who also works as a self-employed farm manager in Southrepps, added: "This is a very simplistic approach to a complicated issue. Each system needs to be looked at individually.

"We want to look at this positively because it is an opportunity to show people we have a system that, in future, other people might be encouraged to do because of the carbon recycling and using the grass to produce meat. It is a sustainable system with low food miles.

"The thing that makes us different is the winter grazing on arable land. It is keeping the field green over the winter. We recycle the straw from that field, which goes back on as muck, and the farmer gets the benefit of all the nutrients kept in the soil.

The Spinks family's cattle graze on kale in arable fields during the winter. Picture: Andrew SpinksThe Spinks family's cattle graze on kale in arable fields during the winter. Picture: Andrew Spinks

"They have been doing it for years with stubble turnips and sheep. It is like the old Norfolk four-course rotation - but we are doing it with cows."

The Spinks family's cattle graze on kale in arable fields during the winter. Picture: Andrew SpinksThe Spinks family's cattle graze on kale in arable fields during the winter. Picture: Andrew Spinks

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