SCOTLAND'S lamb crop is at a five-year low with 8% fewer lambs on Scottish soil compared to the same time last year, as has been highlighted by the June, 2018, Agricultural Census published by the Scottish Government.

The census reports numbers dropped by 272,600 to 3.14m lambs, which is 3.9% below the 2013-2017 five-year average, and is a result of the harsh spring weather but Iain Macdonald, senior economic analyst with Quality Meat Scotland, points out the lambing percentage witnessed by Scottish farmers this year did not fall as far as expected.

“Indeed, the challenging winter and spring of 2012/2013 had seen the lambing percentage fall as low as 118.7% in June, 2013. This year, part of the reason for such a sharp fall in lamb numbers was a significant fall of 4% in ewe numbers on 2017,” said Mr Macdonald.

It should be noted, however, that ewe numbers reported in the December census were slightly above year earlier levels meaning this drop in ewe numbers points to an increase in ewe mortality, as reported by many hill farmers in particular earlier this year.

Elsewhere in the British Isles, While sheep numbers are reported using slightly different categories elsewhere in the British Isles, it remains clear that lamb numbers have also fallen.

“These declines have been to a lesser extent than in Scotland. In England, the lamb crop fell by 1.4% on a 1.3% higher breeding flock, while the Northern Irish crop contracted by 2% on a 1.1% smaller ewe flock,” he said.

“A smaller lamb crop appears to have had an impact on slaughterings. At the UK level, Defra statistics point to an 8% year-on-year decline in slaughter numbers in the June to September period, with GB auction volumes down heavily over this period.

“The size of this fall suggests that lambs have been taking longer to finish than last year, perhaps signalling that numbers will begin to recover in the final quarter of 2018,” commented Mr Macdonald.

In Scotland, while store sales volumes have fallen in line with the lamb crop, down 8%, provisional figures for slaughterings at Scottish abattoirs show a decline of only 1%, perhaps suggesting that fewer Scottish lambs have been crossing the border this year.

In addition, once higher carcase weights have been factored in, the volume of lamb produced by Scottish abattoirs was only a fraction lower than in the same period of 2017.

Looking at the wider European market, lamb production appears to have risen, placing some downwards pressure on farmgate prices relative to last year. After a slow start to the season, processing picked up enough in the Irish Republic in August and September to raise throughput at exporting abattoirs by 3% in the June to September period.

“Meanwhile, Eurostat figures for the June to August period show that slaughterings rose by 7% in France, while processing increased in June and July in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Italy and Greece. On the other hand, the Netherlands, Portugal and Romania did report declines,” he said.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Australian lamb prices have fallen back from record levels over the past month but remain historically high, trading at an equivalent of around £3.80 per deadweight kg, while NZ lamb prices have been trading at above the £4 per deadweight kg mark at the beginning of the 2018/19 lamb crop year.

“Beef + Lamb NZ have forecast a 4% decline in the current NZ lamb crop,” added Mr Macdonald.

“As well as indicating that NZ farmgate prices should hold firm, this suggests that the lamb imported to the UK ahead of Christmas and Easter will continue to look expensive compared to historical averages. In the first quarter of 2018, the average value of imports from NZ had been 21% higher than its five-year average for the period.”