Northern sheep numbers hit highest since 2004

The number of sheep in Northern Ireland has hit its highest in 13 years as breeders focus on fattening stock while prices rise slightly.

Trends

The number of breeding ewes in December 2017 increased by 3% from the previous year. However, over the same period, the number of ewe lambs tupped decreased by 7%.

The total breeding flock recorded in December stood at 927,700 – a level not exceeded since December 2005.

The number of lambs on farms in December decreased by 1% from 2016, lamb numbers hit a seven-year high.

As in 2016, poor weather conditions – particularly in the west of the province – hampered the finishing of lambs and thereby contributed to the high numbers present in December.

Overall, the total number of sheep recorded in December 2017 was 1.381 million which is the highest level recorded since December 2004.

Better prices

Ulster Farmers’ Union beef and sheep committee chairman Crosby Cleland said better prices and changes to supply systems with the supermarkets had caused many breeders to fatten their stock rather than keep them for breeding.

He said: “Prices are up a little bit – right now you could be £14-£20 better off selling lambs now compared to last year.

“It means if you have some lambs you’re not sure about breeding you’d be better off fattening them.

“Prices here are up for lamb because world prices are up, but the UK supermarkets are also buying more British lamb at the moment.

“Traditionally, they have always had difficulty buying in British lamb in time for Easter but now they have worked out a way of buying in legs of lamb now and freezing them.

“It’s good news for farmers because it stabilises prices and gives a better market locally.”

Export

Meanwhile, UK lamb exports to both European and non-EU countries also performed well in 2017, with total volumes up 14%  and valued at more than £384 million (€431 million).

Non-EU volumes have grown to 5,400t – up two-thirds on the previous year.