16th October 2020

Improved productivity boosts Scotland’s lamb crop reveals Scottish Government census

Data released by the Scottish Government reveals an increase in Scotland’s lamb crop and pig herd while cattle numbers continue to contract, according to the latest market commentary from Quality Meat Scotland (QMS). 

Due to COVID-19, the Scottish Government’s June census for 2020 was conducted entirely online and received a reduced response rate.  Responses to the survey signalled an increased lamb crop and the provisional estimate has placed it nearly 70,000 head higher than last year. 

“Scotland’s lamb crop now sits at just over 3.32m – an increase of 2.1%,” said Iain Macdonald, Senior Economics Analyst with QMS. 

“A comparison against the average crop between 2015 and 2019 shows an increase of over 50,000 head.  It was also the third highest of the past decade but still around 89,000 below the 2017 peak.” 

Lambing rates have been trending higher over the past decade, with the four highest of the 21st century coming in the past five years, highlighting productivity improvements made by sheep producers. 

Mr Macdonald notes that the overall increase was limited by a 0.9% reduction in breeding ewe numbers to 2.45m.  

“This was slightly surprising given the combination of the December 2019 census signalling a slight increase in the breeding flock at mating and the relatively good winter and spring weather.”  

Furthermore, GB ewe slaughter fell 13% year-on-year between December and May. 

“Given a year-on-year increase in prime lamb sales of 33% and store lamb sales of 10% in the period up to early October at Scottish auctions, an increased lamb crop is not surprising,” added Mr Macdonald.   

While there was also a better lambing rate than in 2019 south of the border, and prime lamb auction volumes have risen strongly so far, up 16% at sales in England & Wales, England’s June census reported 82,000 fewer lambs (-1.2%), with the dip to 7.68m head driven by a significant decline in breeding ewes (-3.5%).   

“With England’s decline more than offsetting the rise in Scotland, and GB slaughter numbers increasing 6% over last year between June and September, it highlights the potential supply tightening to come.   

“However, the timing of any tightening is likely to depend on when the increased numbers of store lambs sold this autumn reach the market. 

“Nevertheless, the general tightening of supplies could help limit the impact of any market disruption resulting from the end of the Brexit transition period; though it could still prove significant if a tariff-free and quota-free trade deal is not in place,” commented Mr Macdonald. 

For cattle, the results sourced from the Cattle Tracing Scheme database show that Scotland’s sucker herd has continued to contract, falling for the eighth time in nine years. 

“Scotland’s sucker herd fell 0.7% to 414,300, meaning another 3,000 beef cows were lost. As a result, the herd was 5.1% smaller than in 2015 and down 11.5% over the past decade. 

“Meanwhile, although the dairy herd remains larger than a decade ago, it fell 1.6% to a six year low of 173,000,” said Mr Macdonald. 

However, total calf registrations have been more stable than cow numbers and beef-sired calf registrations have shown growth, rising by 2.5% in the year to May 2020, taking them 1.7% higher than five years before and 0.5% higher on the decade. 

Nevertheless, looking at potential slaughter supplies in the coming months, the census results point towards a tightening.  Males aged 1-2 years were down by 1.4% year-on-year while there was a 5.7% fall for males over 24 months.  Meanwhile, the number of female beef cattle over 24 months without a calf were down 8%.   

“Given that year-to-date prime cattle slaughter numbers had been running 2.5% higher at Scottish abattoirs at the end of August, it is unsurprising that the four weeks to September 26th then saw a reduction, though it was very sharp at 16.1%, in part down to an unusually high kill in September 2019.  This saw the cumulative year-to-date increase slow to 0.5%,” said Mr Macdonald. 

In the pig sector, census results tend to be volatile from year-to-year.   

“While sow numbers reported in June 2020 were slightly lower than in June 2019, they were still 4.4% higher than the number recorded in December 2019, 1.8% above the average for June and December 2019, and 17% above the 2012-18 average for June.  This is likely to reflect the degree of confidence amongst pig producers given the firm global market for pork.   

“Meanwhile, fattening pig numbers rose by 6.6%, reaching an eight-year high.  Although the ratio of fattening pigs to sows rose from 7.7 to 8.2, it remained below the 2010-18 average of 9.4, suggesting that the cross-border movement of weaner pigs for fattening remains elevated,” concluded Mr Macdonald.


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