Despite the threat of increased imports of Australian and New Zealand lamb, demand for UK sheep meat is soaring and continues to reach new highs on an almost weekly basis.

Last week many Scottish live auction marts were averaging in excess of 340p per kg, and at the early sales of this week, values improved again, rising as much as 20p/kg to cash in at 360p plus.

Prices are expected to rise further too when the Muslim festival of Ramadan began on Monday and runs through to April 9 with the festival of Eid on April 10. Easter is also at the end of this month and when many people look to eat lamb.

Markets south of the Border and closer to those large ethnic populations are experiencing the greatest demand and highest prices. At Carlisle on Monday and Kirkby Stephen on Tuesday, averages soared above 410p per kg.

“Prices were off the clock at Borderway Mart,” said Harrison and Hetherington auctioneer and pedigree sales and business development manager, James Little who pointed out that old season lambs (2895) averaged 411.46p or £182.63 with an SQQ of 417.11p. This compares to the previous week when they levelled at 364p with an SQQ of 374p.

An unprecedented demand there saw no fewer than 169 pens sell for more than £200 per head. Hill hoggs also reached £200 for Blackfaces or 448p for Cheviots.

The ewe trade was equally buoyant averaging £130 plus with 47 pens selling for more than £200 and to a top of £340 twice.

Old season lambs jumped almost 50p per kg at Harrison and Hetherington’s sale at Kirkby Stephen too when they averaged 411.3p or £188.38 with an SQQ of 414.51p per kg. The previous week, they cashed in at 367.63p or £166.37 with an SQQ of 378.04p.

“We didn’t think prices could go higher than they were the previous week, but when there were so many buyers phoning over the weekend looking for lambs, we knew it was going to be a good sale.

“It has been the perfect storm, with the numbers not there to supply the market, and Ramadan and Easter all falling at the one time. There’s also increased demand from the continent when they don’t have the numbers due to Schmallenberg affecting their 2023 lamb crop and the Spanish are supposed to have sold large numbers to the Middle East,” said Mr Little.

Notably, with many UK farmers having sold the remainder of their 2023 crop and Schmallenberg affecting a percentage of the early season lamb crop this year in England and Wales, Mr Little expects the sheep trade to hold up for longer.

Such has been the finished trade that large numbers of ewe hoggs have also been cashed instead of being kept for gimmers with the result being the breeding sheep should remain buoyant in the back end of the year, he said.

AHDB has also pointed out that this year’s lamb crop is likely to be down due to Schmallenberg and the fall in ewe numbers which in June 2023, were down 6.1%.

Meanwhile figures from Defra highlight the smaller carry over in January – down 10% or 430,000head compared to 2023, which will also bolster the sheep trade for the remainder of the season.

Last year also saw an increased demand for sheep meat from abroad with exports up 11% from January-November totalling 75,000 tonnes.

The European Union remained the main destination with shipments to France totalling 50% of UK exports – up from 47% in 2022, to 38,000 tonnes. Volumes into France are at the highest level since 2015.

Carcases continue to account for the majority of product exported – at more than 60,000 tonnes for 2023 – just over 80% of total sheep meat exports.

Exports of lamb carcases grew by 9000 tonnes from 2022, at the expense of other products.

Looking at 2024, AHDB believes exports into the EU have the potential to grow further as their domestic production has contracted by around 1% and consumption holds steady, supported by the role of sheep meat in religious festivals.

Industry reports also suggest that scanning rates in France are lower than expected, and as such may rely on growth in imports to sustain demand, which AHDB says the UK may be able to capitalise on.