Copious amounts of grass in all areas of the country, coupled with a decimated trade for finished cattle, have buoyed the first of the store lamb sales, which have witnessed better than anticipated prices.

With so much grass and the majority of producers having more than adequate supplies of winter keep, farmers have had to source some sort of livestock to keep their grass in check, and store lambs are the cheaper option.

Such was the demand for store lambs at Lairg, on Tuesday, that an increased entry saw wedder lambs rise by almost a £1 per head on the year, to £52.07, while the ewe lamb trade levelled at £59.51, down £17. In all, some 13,118 lambs were cashed, up 424 on the 12,694 sold at the same sale, last year.

“It was a far better sale than many expected given the fact everyone was talking about the uncertainty relating to Brexit. But, there were a lot of people looking to buy store lambs from Fife, Aberdeenshire and Dumfriesshire,” said Donald Young, regional managing director and auctioneer at United Auctions.

“Farmers were happy with what they received for their entries even though the ewe lamb trade was a bit disappointing,” added Mr Young, pointing out that the farmers who were restocking with Cheviot ewe lambs in recent years are now able to breed their own replacements, which in turn, affected the market at Lairg.

Flockmasters also enjoyed a solid trade at Dingwall and Highland Marts’ first store lamb sale at Dingwall, where an increased entry of almost 5000 head improved by just shy of £4 on the year. In all, the firm sold 8082 to level at £58.93, compared to 3393 at £55 at the same sale in 2018.

“An exceptional entry for quality and numbers met a strong trade from start to finish,” said auctioneer Daniel Urquhart, who added that most of the entries were cross-bred lambs and they were in better fettle than last year.

“We had more buyers than in previous years, with the bulk of them from Aberdeenshire and several from across the Border, purely because there is so much grass that needs grazing,” added Mr Urquhart.

However, while such sales were very much a welcome relief to producers, George Milne, a sheep farmer and past development officer for the National Sheep Association in Scotland, hit out at the lack of commitment to the sector from both the UK and Scottish Government.

Following the sale at Lairg, he said: “It was good to see a better than anticipated sale with wedder lambs seeing a slight rise on the year, but, this does not remove the uncertainty of leaving Brexit with a No Deal. Our lobby organisation’s should be knocking on every door possible in government and lobbying local MPs and MSPs to make sure the industry secures a commitment to underpin prime lamb prices in a worst case scenario.

“Time is of the essence when the three months of our busiest trading period in the sheep industry have started – A commitment to support our prices in a NO Deal situation is vital.

“Politicians should not be fooled by prices at the moment for store lambs. The reality is that sheep farmers and finishers have to keep trading. You can’t just jump in and out of a business discussion that was made months ago,” Mr Milne said.

“The fact that grass and winter keep is in abundance this year will have assisted in maintaining prices. New Zealand lamb is also demanding a very good price elsewhere in the world at present so that provides some confidence to the market and I can’t see New Zealand signing up to supermarket contracts in this country – that would normally suppress our market in the spring – unless they are willing to pay a realistic world market price.”

He also made a call to Prime Minister Boris Johnston to make a commitment to support and underpin prime lamb prices now, in the event of a No Deal, that must be monitored on a monthly basis by a group of both industry and government representatives.

Once new markets are established and trade deals done, he said the sheep industry can then return to normal trading.

“I don’t believe it is anyone’s interest to see a shrinking sheep industry – the very industry that supports and provides the essential criteria for a rural countryside for both tourism and environmental benefit whilst also providing a high quality red meat product,” concluded Mr Milne.

Looking further afield, farmgate prices in New Zealand have indeed been on an upwards path, as have ex-farm values in Australia in recent months.

And with the reduction in supplies down under, coupled with China taking increasing amounts, overall shipments to the EU are back almost a fifth on the year.

In the first six months of 2019, New Zealand exported 242,300 tonnes, down 3% year-on-year, while production during the same period is down 7%. Shipments to the EU are back 8000 tonnes, while exports to other smaller markets have also declined.

Meanwhile China has increased it’s imports by 18,000 tonnes in the January to June 2019 period, to 125,200 tonnes.

Australia has also increased its sheepmeat exports to China, by 18,200tonnes in the first half of 2019.