Phil Stocker has been a key leader in British agriculture and his dedication and commitment was recognised as last year’s winner of the Outstanding Contribution to British Agriculture at the British Farming Awards. Debbie James learns more about his worthy work and optimism for the future.

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As fun facts go, it is not exactly unexpected news to learn that Phil Stocker’s favourite farm animal is a sheep and always has been – an apt choice for the head of the National Sheep Association (NSA).

More surprising is that his impressive trajectory to becoming the voice of the UK sheep industry has been achieved with no family background in farming.

Phil was in fact born and bred in a city, in central Bristol.

It was childhood holidays in Wales, visiting relatives who were farmers, which set him on his future career path.

With a passion for farming instilled in those formative years, he left home at 16 to work on a large farming estate in North Wiltshire, a role facilitated by the then Agricultural Training Board’s apprentice scheme.

He gained practical experience on-farm while simultaneously augmenting his knowledge of farming at Lackham College, later returning as a full-time student.

It stood him in good stead for the next 24 years, managing and running different farms, and later establishing his own share farming enterprise in Somerset.

In 1996, after BSE intensified interest in farming and with it a need to rebuild consumer trust, Phil set off on a different path.

He gave up hands-on farming to take up a job with the Soil Association, supporting farmers who wanted to convert to an organic system.

Phil says: “I had 15 really interesting years there and by the time I joined the NSA I felt I was in a position from the work I had been involved in to have a big impact, because at that point there was growing interest in farming generally, including the sheep sector, in raising health and welfare standards and tackling environmental issues.”

As he looks back on 12 years at the NSA, Phil also looks forward to the opportunities and challenges ahead for the UK sheep sector.

He says: “I feel quite optimistic about the future. Global demand for red meat and lamb is increasing.”

Yet there are several reasons why Phil believes there will not be big expansion in UK sheep numbers and ‘absolutely no reason’ for a contraction.

He says: “I do not see any reason why we will not see total numbers retained, but what we will see is an ongoing  subtle redistribution of flocks from the uplands to the lowlands.

“The uplands will still be important, but the pressure will come from land being taken out of production for planting
trees, for carbon capture and other environmental schemes.”

Some of that redistribution into the lowlands is already being driven by growing interest in using sheep on grass reintroduced into arable rotations, to build soil fertility and break weed life cycles.


That system is appealing for other reasons – the relatively low capital cost of establishing a sheep system and interest from young and new entrants in setting up new flocks.

Phil says: “Sheep of the right breeds do well on lowland arable ground as well as on permanent pastures in the  uplands and lowlands, so I do not see any reasons why the UK will not retain the numbers we have. I see the market supporting that.”

He believes there will be continued interest in establishing sheep dairying enterprises, but the principal focus will firmly remain on meat production.

“Overall, global demand for sheepmeat offers the chance for the British sheep flock to be maintained.”

But this will come with some changes, he says.

“British agriculture generally, and certainly the sheep industry, is rightly moving away from just producing a global commodity.

“We are setting ourselves up as producers of quality products, with some of the highest welfare and environmental standards in the world.”

Expectations relating to health and welfare will further tighten, he predicts.

Concerns over antibiotic use, resistance to anthelmintics and other vet medicines and welfare labelling proposals are signs of things to come, as are moves to reduce castration and tailing and improve welfare in transport.

Although wool prices, Phil says, are ‘dreadful’, some specialist producers who have established niche markets for quality wools are making a good success of it.

He says: “One of the huge appeals of sheep farming is the strong correlation it has with areas of public interest –  animals kept in free-range conditions, a green countryside and working with nature.

“If we get the system and the farming approach right we can deliver so many other public goods along the way while producing good quality meat from grass.”

A turning point for the industry was a 2020 University of Oxford study, which in part restored the reputation of sheep, with its findings demonstrating that the atmospheric life of methane, the greenhouse gas (GHG) produced from enteric emissions, was much shorter-lived than other GHGs.

Phil says: “Grazing ruminants had a bad name in terms of emissions, but this study helped a move towards looking sustainability through a wider lens, not just emissions.”

In the last five years, there has also been a change in thinking on grassland, the wider value of which had not been recognised, he says.


There is now much wider recognition of the importance of grazed grassland, for carbon capture, for protecting soils,
for nature and access and as a natural firebreak. This is being reflected in Government policy.

Phil says: “In the stewardship schemes the Sustainable Farming Incentive in England, the value being placed on grassland is quite clear.

“We are a green, pastoral nation and the role of grass in combating climate change was not really understood. It is reassuring that it is now becoming so.”

It is thanks in part to his work at the NSA, but Phil is quick to deflect any personal recognition for that, insisting that it is ‘we’ not ‘I’. Any successes the NSA achieves are collective, he says.

Success for him personally is measured by the successes of others – the people who work for the NSA, the officers  who support the work of the association, the industry in general and the farmers.

He sees himself as an enabler, enabling others to achieve on a personal and wider scale.

One of the achievements he is most proud of is establishing the NSA Next Generation Programme nine years ago. He says: “These young people are the future of our industry, so it gives me huge satisfaction to see those who have participated in the programme going on to make a mark on their own businesses and in the wider industry.”

Phil chairs the Animal Health and Welfare Sheep Group as part of Defra’s new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway in England.

He says: “This has really raised the importance of sheep health at a government level; it is a really interesting area of work. We are now looking ahead to the Pathway endemic diseases programme, which should start in 2024, with similar health initiatives in the devolved nations.

“I am proud to also chair two sheep health forums for the Scottish Government.”

Once a farmer always a farmer, Phil likes to keep his ‘boots on the ground’ too, with initiatives such as the Black  Mountains Land Use Partnership, a partnership of graziers, landowners and regulatory bodies, which he has chaired since 2015.

He also still runs a small flock of Shropshire sheep at his home in Gloucestershire.

Since Phil joined the NSA, he has reconfigured the organisation from the pyramid staffing structure it once had.

He says: “Many more people now have their own areas of responsibility.”

It is part of his ambition to ensure it remains a resilient organisation, not a ‘one-man show’. Phil says: “Succession is vital in any business or organisation and the NSA is no different.


“It is important that it can continue with an established strategy and structure when the person with ultimate overall
responsibility leaves.”

Not that he is planning on going anywhere any time soon.

His ambition for the UK sheep industry has not been diminished in any sense by his 12 years at the helm and his determination and spirit to continue advocating positive change is one to admire and inspire.


This prestigious award is designed to recognise one individual’s dedication to the farming industry. The award is given to a member of the agricultural industry who has worked tirelessly for UK farming, either through delivering innovation, championing the needs for fellow farmers, spearheading change and/or promoting the industry to the wider public.

You can nominate someone you feel is working tirelessly for UK farming. They will not be notified they have been nominated unless they are chosen as the winner of the award.

This award is chosen by the British Farming Awards team and announced during the awards night.


For more information on the category and the British Farming Awards, visit

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