Sheep in a field© Rex/Shutterstock

The English sheep flock has hit a 12-year high on the back of improved farmer confidence and increased lamb survival rates.

Results from the latest Defra survey put the English sheep flock at 15.8 million head at 1 June, 3% up on the year and the highest since 2005, with increases in all breeding categories.

Although still a long way off the historic highs recorded during the 1990s, when the UK breeding flock peaked at nearer 21 million head, this year’s increase continues the gradual recovery in numbers over the past decade, according to AHDB analyst Rebecca Oborne.

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“The mild winter and spring definitely helped with lamb survival, but we’re also seeing a longer-term 10-year trend that is still on the up, partly due to more farmer optimism over lamb prices, and also to improved lamb survival rates generally.”

Average lambing percentages have increased from 114% in 2005 to about 120% last season, she notes.

Unknown effect

Miss Oborne says it is too early to say whether the increased numbers will weigh on prices, especially given the uncertainty about Brexit discussions and what effect this has on exchange rates, access to export markets and competition from imports.

The size of the 2018 lamb crop, and any resulting pressure on prices, also depends on conditions at tupping and through the winter and spring, she adds.

Markets are currently on a seasonal decline, with the average SQQ price for prime new-season lambs down 7% on the week to 169p/kg liveweight (as at 18 September), about 8p/kg below last year.

The latest John Nix Pocketbook forecasts improved gross margins from lowland and upland lambing as well as rearing and finishing enterprises.

The average lowland spring-lambing flock gross margin is estimated at £46 a ewe (including forage costs), although it ranges from £21-£67 a ewe.

Category

Total

Change on 2016

Female breeding flock, including:

7.4 million

4%

                Ewes intended for further breeding

5.7 million

4%

                Breeding ewes intended for slaughter

478,000

5%

                Ewes intended for first time breeding

1.2 million

3%

Lambs less than one year old

8 million

3%

Rams

192,000

3%