Meeting specifications key to future success of hill lamb

Ireland has a potential “genie in a bottle” when it comes to marketing hill lamb under the Wild Atlantic Way banner, Bord Bia’s Declan Fennell said at the recent SHEEP 2018 open day.

However, there’s a caveat, he said: “We need to deliver to a market specification and we’ve being doing pilot work with Teagasc and Kepak in terms of identifying the right specification or product.”

As it stands, hill lamb is exported to markets such as Scandinavia and Italy, but demand in markets like Portugal and Spain – which traditionally acquired light lamb carcasses – has reduced.

When it comes to marketing hill lamb, Fennell said: “There’s a wonderful product proposition in it and there are customers who would love that in terms of the taste.

How we improve the confirmation, I think, is gradual incremental steps in terms of breeding programmes.

“But the core principle of what we are doing at the moment is a pilot and basically there are a number of customers who are looking for a light lamb. But they are unforgiving in that it must be to a specification with sufficient fat cover.”

When it comes to building the market for hill lamb, Fennell said, it’s critical to find options, while farmers must also be given the confidence in the opportunity there.

“We are not going to boil the ocean and solve all of the hill lamb because there’s a lot of hill lamb. But I think if we can start to create a discipline of better finishing, while kitting in improvements in the breeding programme, we will bring that up to a certain level.

There are animals that don’t go up to 18-20kg because they won’t. I think we can create something to a specification and put a story behind it, there’s a lot of equity we can build.

“The one thing and having spent time in markets is that customers – be it retail, foodservice, a chef or the end customer – are unforgiving.

“They want something that is to a value and they want it at a consistent taste and eating size. We must deliver to what the market needs rather than turning around and saying: ‘This is what we have, let’s try and find a market.

“When we try to find markets for something which is not suitable for the market, you are in the bargain basement and you’re a price taker.

“The hill lamb is positive; it’s still early days, but I think there is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel,” he concluded.