The head of the National Sheep Association (NSA) has credited childhood holidays in Wales, visiting relatives who were farmers, for setting him on his future career path.

Phil Stocker’s passion for farming was instilled in those formative years, so much so that he left home at 16 to work on a large farming estate, a role facilitated by the then Agricultural Training Board’s apprentice scheme.

He gained practical experience on the 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 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 organic.

Wales Farmer:  NSA chief Phil Stocker

“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 opportunities and challenges ahead for the UK sheep sector.

“I feel quite optimistic about the future. Global demand for red meat and lamb is increasing.’’

Yet there are several reasons why he believes there won’t be big expansion in UK sheep numbers, and “absolutely no reason’’ for a contraction.

“I don’t see any reason why we won’t see total numbers retained but what we will see is an ongoing subtle redistribution of flocks from the uplands to the lowlands,’’ he reckons.

“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.

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

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

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, he admits, are “dreadful’’ some specialist producers who have established niche markets for quality wools are making a good success of it.

One of the “massive’’ 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,’’ says Phil.

One of the achievements he is most proud of is establishing the NSA Next Generation Programme nine years ago.

“These young people are the future of our industry, it gives me huge satisfaction to see those that have participated in the programme going on to make a mark on their own businesses and in the wider industry.’’

Once a farmer always a farmer, Phil likes to keep his “boots on the ground’’ too with initiatives like the Black Mountains Land Use Partnership (BMLUP), a partnership of graziers, landowners and regulatory bodies in Wales which he has chaired since 2015.

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

“Many more people now have their own areas of responsibility,’’ he says.

It is part of his ambition to ensure that it remains a resilient organisation, not a “one man show’’.

“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 or retires.’’

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

His ambition for the sheep industry has not been diminished in any sense by his 12 years at the helm.