Sheep farmers warned: don't count your chickens

With lamb prices up and prospects looking good for sheep farming in the near future, there was an air of optimism swirling around Milton of Aberarder, Inverness, when the Scottish Agricultural College held its open event yesterday.

However, Kevin Bevan, sheep specialist with the college, poured caution into the mix during a seminar. He stressed that a combination of factors that had come together to produce the profits now going into the sector and that future prosperity might rely more on self-help rather than a rise in market prices.

The removal of the link between subsidies and the number of sheep had seen the national flock reduce drastically in recent years, he said. And although there are no official figures for this year yet, the general view is the 2010 lamb crop is smaller than normal.

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With such a large percentage of lamb production heading over to the continent, the weakness of the pound has helped exports while increasing the cost of important New Zealand lamb. However, Bevan pointed out that the higher prices for shoppers had coincided with some reduction in home consumption. Sheep producers had to work with the main buyers to ensure that quality meat was being offered to consumers, he said. This was critical to the profitability of the whole sheep sector.

Another influential factor in the home trade in sheep meat is the ethnic trade.

Although less than 3 per cent of the UK population are Muslims, it has been estimated that this small section of society consume one third of all lamb sold - and that percentage is much higher in the cast ewe trade.

We are now in the month of Ramadan and Bevan said it would be interesting to see if the effect of fasting between sunrise and sunset would affect the home lamb trade.

In the longer term, he said there were reports that many flock masters were keeping a few extra of their female lambs in order to increase flock numbers.

Just how significant this will be in altering the supply-and-demand balance remains to be seen but Bevan said he was encouraged that there did not seem to be any large-scale new entrants into the industry.

Looking at the forthcoming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, he said sheep farmers with their high dependency on support should back "the public good" aspect of having sheep in remote and hilly areas as a better bet than using the food production argument.

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