Sheep farmers sent nearly 13.6m lambs to be slaughtered last year after a good lambing season and rise in culls, but the falling price is expected to squeeze supplies in 2006.

Economist Mark Topliff at the Meat and Livestock Commission estimated that slaughterings were up 4.4% compared with 2004, but prices were 13p/kg liveweight lower.

“Lambing was good and fewer ewes were retained, because farmers no longer need such numbers for stocking density payments.

“Culling rates are expected to fall again in 2006, but there will also be fewer breeding ewes.”

The predicted fall of 3% in slaughter numbers could divert exports and lead to a rise in imports, Mr Topliff said.

But retail sales of fresh and frozen lamb rose by 2.3% across the UK in 2005, and by a massive 6% in Wales as consumers rediscovered an appetite for the meat.

And while exports also reached new highs on the back of falling sheep numbers in southern Europe, imports of chilled sheep meat also rose.

In the 11 months to November, they made up 26.7% of total imported supplies and accounted for 45% of lamb purchases.

Further increases are expected this year, in line with the long-term trend.