Ian Watson lambasts broken links in lamb supply chain

At least half of the lambs handled by Farm Stock are taken south of the Border for slaughter. Picture: John Devlin
At least half of the lambs handled by Farm Stock are taken south of the Border for slaughter. Picture: John Devlin
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In a searing indictment of the Scottish lamb market, a leading figure in the industry yesterday described it as having a “supply chain notable for mistrust” with a “lack of communication between the links” backed up with “little enthusiasm to sort out major problems with supply and demand”.

Ian Watson, the chairman of Farm Stock, Scotland, admitted he might be painting a pretty bleak picture but claimed there were a number of major issues the sector had to address if it was flourish.

Think of the loss of Scottish provenance, the transport costs, welfare of the animals and carbon footprint

Ian Watson

Speaking at a major conference in Edinburgh organised by Farm Stock, he claimed that at least half – possibly up to two-thirds – of the 150,000 lambs handled annually by the Farm Stock co-operative based in Galashiels are taken south for slaughter.

“Think of the loss of levy. Think of the loss of Scottish provenance and then think of the transport costs, the welfare of the animals and the carbon footprint,” he told the 150-strong audience which included Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Government minister for the rural economy.

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Watson then touched on the seasonality of supply by pointing out his company can go from handling 500 lambs per week in June to 7,000 per week, in October.

The inefficiencies arising from such an uneven supply profile were highlighted with the market under great pressure during times of peak delivery.

There were solutions, he believed, ranging from spreading out the lambing period through to making more use of slaughter followed by chilling and storing the carcases to spread out the sales peak. He admitted this latter suggestion was not new as a paper published in 1929 had made a similar point.

In common with other speakers at the event, Watson was critical of the conservatism in the sheep sector, highlighting a reluctance to adopt modern technology.

He and Dr Jonathan Birnie from major processor Dunbia were critical of the number of sheep breeds in the UK. with the variation in carcases from the differing breeds giving problems for the trade. “Dolly mixtures” was Birnie’s description of the variety of breeds coming to the processors as he remarked that half the sheep coming into the abattoirs were “out of spec”.

Ewing referred to the recently published review of the sheep sector and promised he would do his utmost to ensure the report did not gather dust on the shelf.

However, the minister ducked a question from Jim Fullarton, who farms in the Borders, on whether Scotland might consider implementing tariffs post Brexit to stop the flow of New Zealand lamb into this country.

There was no such reluctance to providing a response reticence from James Parsons who not only is a New Zealand sheep farmer but who heads up Beef & Lamb New Zealand.

“Instead of seeing us [New Zealand sheep farmers] as competitors, why not co-operate with us and together we will look for markets on the world stage,” he suggested.

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