The publication of the June agricultural census results for Scotland shows some encouraging growth in sheep numbers.
The 2016 Scottish lamb crop is reported to be 2.8% larger than the previous year - an increase of almost 100,000 lambs, said Stuart Ashworth, Quality Meat Scotland’s Head of Economics Services.
“One factor behind this was an increase in the breeding flock last year, but a bigger contribution came from better ewe productivity. Census results from England and Northern Ireland also reported a larger 2016 lamb crop of one per cent and two per cent respectively,” said Mr Ashworth.
UK slaughter statistics report lower volumes of lambs slaughtered between June and the end of September. Combined with the census results this suggests, observed Mr Ashworth, a larger stock of lambs on farms going into late autumn and winter.
“Not only have there been fewer lambs slaughtered, but carcase weights are also lower suggesting, perhaps, slower growth rates.
“Auction market throughputs during October have, however, been higher than last year’s levels. Prime lamb prices have showed weakness through September and October falling some 15 p/kg lwt although there has been some increase in the past week.”
Nevertheless, at current levels auction prices are some 20p/kg higher than last year and the second highest at this time of year for the past five years.
In recent years the prime lamb price has shown some strength during November and December, said Mr Ashworth. However, the extra volume of lambs, suggested by the census results, may constrain this seasonal movement this year.
Meanwhile Ireland’s abattoir throughput of prime lamb has also been running lower than last year for much of the summer and autumn. Their June census also showed a modest increase in the lamb crop.
In France, too, lamb slaughterings are struggling to match last year’s levels, but in France the long term decline in breeding sheep numbers mean there are fewer lambs available.
While this creates some export opportunity it must also be recognised that sheepmeat consumption in France is slowly falling and French trade data suggests a decline of 10% in sheep meat imports over the January to July period, compared to a year earlier.
Census results from around the UK and Ireland showed a higher number of ewes on farm in June.
“Since then slaughter data shows there has been a higher volume of ewes and rams slaughtered than last year which would be expected from a larger breeding flock if replacement rates were unchanged,” stated Mr Ashworth.
“In Scotland the number of hoggs retained for breeding reported in the June census was broadly unchanged on the year, but there was an increase in England.
“Hence, despite the current level of ewe slaughtering, the change in hogg numbers leaves the capacity for a modest increase in breeding sheep numbers this autumn.”