Finished lamb at market© Tim Scrivener

The AHDB has warned against using so-called self-sufficiency as a measure of success for the sheep sector, despite output and consumption being in balance for only the fifth time in 30 years.

A total of 214,000t of sheepmeat was produced in the first three quarters of 2017. Production estimates for the final quarter, put at 88,000t, would see a total output of 302,000t over the year – a difference between demand and supply of just 0.3%.

It is only the fifth year that the market has reached this position in the past 30 years, the others being 1993, 1994, 1995 and 2014.

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Based on further production increases and falling consumption, the AHDB suggested that the situation will be maintained from 2018 until 2020.

Complex situation

However, AHDB market analyst Rebecca Oborne said that using overall figures to imply the market was self-sufficient failed to reflect the complex situation in the sheepmeat sector.

“The sector has differing seasonal production and consumption peaks and troughs so the UK was not truly self-sufficient in the past, and will not be in the future,” Ms Oborne said.

Peak demand is in the late spring, around Easter, at a point when UK production is low. In contrast, the maximum production level is reached in the autumn months and can vary further according to the weather during the growing season.

It means that we are mainly in a situation of over- or under-supply of home-produced product, even when annual tonnages are in equilibrium, Ms Oborne said.

She warned that with Brexit approaching, it was increasingly important for the sheep sector to look harder at consumer preference to establish what changes could be made to better meet demand.

“Consumption is falling and we cannot be complacent by assuming self-sufficiency is the target.

“Work to secure potential export markets for cheaper cuts and promotion of lamb consumption at home needs to continue to maximise demand,” Ms Oborne suggested.