There's no doubting 2019 was a far better year than expected for sheep farmers with most prices up on the previous 12 months. The good news is that trend looks set to continue throughout 2020 and maybe into 2021, on the back of one of the best grass growing seasons and tragically, some real disasters in the southern hemisphere.

An early spring coupled with continued grass growth throughout much of 2019, enabled most sheep farmers to finish more of their lambs quicker and solely off grass. Add to that earlier Muslim festivals to bolster demand at key periods and the ewe trade in particular has and remains well up on the year, with many centres witnessing values up £15-£20 per head, while prime lambs are up £5-£6.

Backing up these statements are the latest figures from AHDB which show cull ewes in Scotland averaged £77.41 per head on Tuesday, up £20 per head on the week, while south of the Border they cashed in at £74.95. Averages were even higher on the first day of the week too, with ewes in Scotland levelling at £82.05 compared to £76.29 in England and Wales.

"It's all down to supply and demand as there was a hell of a lot more ewes sold from September through to November and they all went direct to the abattoir, so they are not there to come out now," said Richard Henderson, prime sheep auctioneer at United Auctions.

"We sold a huge number of ewes for £120-£150 per head through the autumn and last week's sale at Stirling sold to £158 for Texel crosses while Huntly peaked at £129 for Suffolk crosses.

"There's a lot more buzz about the sheep trade because of these better prices which are likely to continue for another year and maybe two, when you think New Zealand will be sending most of their lambs to China because of African Swine Fever and Australia will need a couple of years to restock after the devastating bush fires," added Mr Henderson.

Lawrie and Symington also sold a lot more sheep through their Lanark centre last year, which in turn is bolstering trade according to head sheep auctioneer, Archie Hamilton.

"Most farmers sold their sheep earlier last year because of the good grass growing conditions and because they wanted them away before Brexit, so most centres are seeing far fewer sheep coming forward now," he said.

"We sold an extra 12,000 light lambs last year on top of many more ewes and prime lambs, which added to the extra numbers cashed through all centres means there are not the numbers there so the sheep trade is well up on the year. Our store lambs are £4-£6 up on the year and almost unbuyable and ewe prices are nearing their highest ever value," said Mr Hamilton adding that Lanark achieved a centre record on Monday, when a Texel ewe sold for £193.

Further south, Neil McCleary, sheep auctioneer with C and D Auction Marts, Longtown, was equally positive for the industry with all sectors of the trade up on the year following last year's tremendous grass growth.

"We'll never see another year like it for grass with so many farmers able to sell their lambs finished earlier off grass and it was the same for ewes. Everyone's sheep appeared to do well," said Mr McCleary.

Furthermore, he expects the trade to hold up relatively well until most of the yeld ewes are cashed and then sharpen again.

"Cast ewes have been selling for anything from £130-£160, which is up £15-£20 per head on the year and they've lifted another £10 in the past month. Last week we had Texel ewes at £181."

And, with prime sheep values up on the year, so too have been the first of the store sales of 2020, with the first at Longtown on Tuesday "off the clock," according to Mr McCleary, who added that good lambs were making £85-£90 per head, up £10-£15 on the same sale 12 months previously. Overall, store lambs averaged £75.22 having sold to £115 for a Beltex hogg from a pen of 353 hoggs from RJ Muir, Low Stanley, that averaged £85.69.

There is good news for the sheep industry from AHDB too, as the government body predicts fewer lambs will available for slaughter during the first five months of 2020.

Looking ahead, it predicts around 265,000 fewer lambs (both new and old season) comprising of around 100,000 head fewer old seasons and around 165,000 fewer early new season lambs. In total, approximately 12.9m lambs from the 2019 lamb crop are forecast to be killed – 130,000 head fewer than from the 2018 lamb crop.

Looking more long-term, the number of lambs killed from the 2020 and 2021 lamb crops is forecast to be around 12.5m head each. On a calendar year basis, rather than lamb crop, a total of 13m lambs are forecast to be killed in 2019, followed by around 12.5m in 2020.