SHEEP farmers in North Devon believe a new approach from Europe is needed to encourage growth of the national flock after years of decline.
The area used to graze one of the most dense populations of sheep in the world, but has suffered a drop in numbers because of common market policies. Local members of the National Sheep Association (NSA) want the politicians to reverse the trend and make the best use of hill farms.
It would mean treading a line between the old headage payments for livestock and the current support for wildlife and the countryside.
The South West's vice chairman of the association, Bryan Griffiths of Burrington, said: "We're asking them to take a middle ground. If sheep farmers are to receive taxpayers' money it should be in return for managing their flocks in a healthy, efficient and productive manner that's environmentally sustainable."
The association has put forward plans to inspire best practice in sheep health, welfare and production as part of their negotiations in the current reform of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The new scheme would allow livestock farmers access to funding under Pillar Two of the CAP by satisfying criteria on health planning, veterinary visits, voluntary monitoring and health schemes, biosecurity and effective disease quarantine procedures.
Mr Griffiths said: "We've seen this Pillar Two money channelled into environmental schemes and stewardship and we saw a dramatic decline in the national flock."
He agreed that the headage payments of years ago did not work either, because they caused serious over-stocking and grazing.
The association believes its plan would increase efficiency, reduce resource use and help address climate change needs.
Chief executive Phil Stocker said: "The UK sheep flock has shrunk in recent years and the picture is similar for all other livestock sectors. Any scheme that halts or reverses this trend is money well spent."
"Pillar Two of CAP already has point-based agri-environment schemes, with which farmers are familiar and use to farm hand-in-hand with the environment. The NSA believes an animal health scheme along the same lines would provide much-needed funding to help farmers invest and build on the strong track-record the UK already has on animal health and welfare.
"Given the links between good health, increased production levels and reductions in carbon emissions, such a scheme would not only provide public goods in further improving health and welfare standards, but also increase output, and encourage farmers to maintain or even increase flock and herd sizes."