According to a recent EBLEX sheep industry report the UK ewe flock in 2013 hit its highest level since 2006 with an increase of more than one million head recorded over the last three years.

In the report EBLEX cited Defra figures which show that, the total number of female breeding sheep in the UK as of 1 December 2013 was up four per cent on the year at 14.85 million head.

It says this rise was driven by increased numbers in England and Wales, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland reporting lower numbers of ewes on the ground. While this increase continues the trend of the past few years, it is somewhat surprising given the volatile conditions that the industry has faced over the past 18 months or so.

EBLEX noted that bad weather in 2012 and early 2013 reportedly resulted in relatively large scale stock losses. This, combined with the increased culling rate evident in 2013, meant the expectation from industry was that the flock was unlikely to show any growth.

It added, in addition to seasonal conditions being poor, the market in late 2012 and early 2013 was under significant pressure, with prices falling considerably. As a result producers had seemingly lost a lot of the optimism of recent years and were not expected to rebuild numbers.

EBLEX also outlined that given the increase in numbers there does appear to be some residual confidence in the some areas of the sheep sector. It says while the market has been volatile and weather conditions have been difficult, the most efficient producers have generally remained profitable.

EBLEX compares this scenario with suckler beef enterprises which are generally unprofitable even for the most efficient producers. As a result, some producers may have increased sheep numbers at the expense of suckler cows as sheep enterprises appear to be more attractive. The UK figures show that suckler cow numbers have dropped by three per cent on 2012 levels.

Overall, the total UK sheep flock as of 1 December 2013 was down nearly two per cent on the year at 22.62 million head. This overall drop comes as the number of ‘other sheep and lambs’ fell by nearly 11 per cent on the year to 7.77 million head.