Sheep producers have had a welcome boost for the start of 2009 as auctioneers report buoyant trade in the first sales of the New Year.

Prime hoggett prices in several areas hit £95 a head earlier this week, with many markets reporting plenty of sheep selling for over £70-80 a head.

“Prices are the best they’ve been for a long time,” Carlisle auctioneer Robert Addison said on Wednesday (7 January). “Demand is strong and the level of the euro against sterling is helping exports.” Average prices were about 60p/kg up on the same time last year, equivalent to about £24 a head extra for a 40kg hogget, he said.

“If things continue like this, we could see some £100 hoggets, providing the wheels don’t fall off.”

In Hexham, average hogget prices at Tuesday’s auction were £10 up on the week at £68 a head, Scott Donaldson said. Top price of £95 a head went to a pen of Suffolk-cross lambs, with another 71 sheep from the same farm averaging £85.95, up £40 on last year.

Average prices of 163p/kg were typically 60-65p/kg above the first sales of January 2008, he said. “The strength of the euro is certainly a factor, but also there has been a shortage of numbers over Christmas and New Year, so meat wholesalers’ shelves are pretty empty and they need to restock.

“I expect things will settle down a bit next week, but we should still be at a higher price than before Christmas, probably nearer 150p/kg.”

Brian Ross from Lanark market in Scotland said trade had been good all week, but the true picture would be seen next week after retailers had fully restocked after the Christmas and New Year break. “We’ll wait to see whether this strong trade continues and if the consumer is willing to pay the higher price for meat on the shelf.”

There was still good demand coming from the Continent, and France in particular, where sheep numbers were down after Bluetongue outbreaks last year, he added. “The European market has definitely pushed trade on, but I don’t know whether we’ll get to £100 hoggets. We’ll have to wait and see.”

UK flocks were also down, which could support future prices, Michael Powell in Exeter said. “People have reduced breeding sheep numbers in this part of the world since the single payment was introduced, in some cases by half. I believe there is a shortage of numbers and that will help keep prices up, particularly while exports keep going. You’d have had a job to get £40 for a hoggett 12 months ago, whereas on Monday they were doing £80 and we had a lot in the £70s.”