A mild, dry spring bolstered lamb numbers by almost 70,000 head on the year according to the latest Scottish Government figures, while beef cattle numbers contracted for the eighth year out of nine.

The results from the Scottish Government's June census for 2020 which was conducted entirely online due to Covid-19 and received a reduced response rate revealed Scotland’s lamb crop now sits at just over 3.32m – an increase of 2.1% on the year, according Iain Macdonald, senior economics analyst at Quality Meat Scotland.

Compared to the average crop between 2015 and 2019, numbers are up 50,000 head but still around 89,000 below the peak in 2017.

Lambing rates have been 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.

The overall increase was also limited by a 0.9% reduction in breeding ewe numbers at 2.45m, which Mr Macdonald said was 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 slaughters 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,” he said

While lambing rates improved on the year 2019; south of the Border, prime lamb auction volumes have risen strongly and are up 16% in England and 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 the last year between June and September, there is potential for a tightening of supplies in future.

“However, the timing of any reduction in supplies 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, which means another 3000 beef cows were lost. As a result, the national herd was 5.1% smaller than in 2015 and down 11.5% over the past decade.

And, while the dairy herd remains larger than a decade ago, it fell 1.6% to a six-year low of 173,000.

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 26, 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.

Census results tend to be volatile from year-to-year in pig sector and the same was true of the latest results.

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. Again, 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.