Drought-stricken reservoir in France August 2015Konrad K/Sipa/Rex Shuttertock

The UK sheepmeat sector could see greater demand from France where drought and bluetongue look likely to reduce the lamb crop next year.

France is a key influencer on the UK’s sheep sector as it is the UK’s biggest export market for sheepmeat by far, accounting for about 50% of all such exports.

But a summer drought and an outbreak of bluetongue this autumn is taking its toll on an already declining French breeding flock.

The French livestock body Institut de l’Elevage forecast the breeding flock this November to be 2% lower than last year and lamb slaughterings in 2016 3% lower than this year.

A report by AHDB Beef and Lamb, said: “The drought has led to the condition of breeding ewes not being as good this year, which has implications for lambing rates.

“In addition, bluetongue can have a devastating impact on lambing rates for those ewes and rams that have contracted the disease and there is some uncertainty about how many sheep are being affected.”

“Developments in France next year will inevitably impact on the UK. Domestic shortages would provide a boost to UK trade at a time when availability in other exporting countries such as Ireland and New Zealand will be tight.”

It comes at a time when UK sheepmeat exports to France are recovering following a difficult summer period, which saw French supermarkets reduce their non-French produce after drastic protests against low farmgate prices and cheap imports.

See more: Lamb exports to France fell 20% during French farmer protests

Mark Kozlowski, ADHB Beef and Lamb senior analyst, said he expected exports in quarter four to be up on the same period last year and an improvement on market conditions in the summer.

There was still some sentiment among supermarkets to maintain the domestic market, said Mr Kozlowski, but this was diminishing, which was a positive sign for exporters.

However, there were caveats to French consumption, including the declining consumer demand for lamb in France and the value of sterling against the euro.

“There was some strengthening for the euro back in September but in recent times this has fallen back – an increase in the value of the euro would help the export market,” he added.

Bluetongue was first detected in mid-France in September and a wide area covering the centre of the country is now under surveillance, resulting in movement restrictions and disrupting lamb marketing.

In addition, there is some uncertainty surrounding a vaccination campaign as there are not sufficient stocks to cover both the sheep and cattle sectors.

Priority is being given to cattle given that the store trade with Italy is seen as more important than sheep.