By Simon Wragg

CULL EWE prices should begin to stabilise as numbers coming forward start to fall. Markets have been flooded in recent weeks as producers snatched the opportunity to shed older ewes after the removal of subsidy restrictions – wiping almost one-third off values.

Without the need to maintain flock numbers until May 15 – the end of the former sheep annual premium scheme”s retention period – many producers have opted this year to sell ewes scanned as being barren or in poor condition ahead of lambing. As a consequence, livestock entries swelled last month by 3000-4000 a week compared to January 2004 compounding a slump in values.

According to Meat & Livestock Commission figures, average values of both light and heavy culls in January fell 30% on the same trading period last year (see table). That left cull sheep worth an average of 27.79 last month against 40.06 a year earlier.

Auctioneer Archie Hamilton, of Longtown Mart, Cumbria, is typical of many traders hoping entries will ease back to bring stability to the market. “Let”s hope the worst is behind us. Producers are taking out barren ewes early and also didn”t get the demand for the religious festivals many had been hoping and holding out for.”

The slump in values will has hit those producers who bought ewes to feed over winter, he added. “Many are selling ewes at just 2 or 3 a head more than they bought them for last autumn,” he said.

Imports from Eire have also been hit. Numbers have fallen from 1200-1400 a week to just 300-500 as Irish meat plant prices began looking comparable against the mainland after shipping costs, reported fellow Longtown auctioneer Neil McCleary.

Some English markets have seen values stabilise. With entries still topping 2000 head a week at Welshpool on Monday (Feb 7) auctioneer Ryan Stockbridge was pleased to see the day”s average lift 4 a head to level at 26.21. “These are new market conditions with the removal of headage payments and clearly producers are embracing change. I believe producers are looking to cut ewe numbers and do a better job with smaller flocks,” he said.

North of the border, auctioneer Colin Slessor expects numbers at Thainstone, Aberdeenshire, to ease back as feeders near the end of the season.

“Yes, we”ll continue to see small ewes coming off the uplands and islands, but trade for strong Suffolk, Texel and cross-bred ewes continue to hit 55-60 a head for the best so its not all bad news,” he added.

sjhwragg@aol.com