Cull ewes in a livestock market© Tim Scrivener

High lamb prices have driven up sheep flock numbers to the highest level for almost 20 years, according to an analysis of Defra livestock census figures.

The AHDB said Defra’s figures, taken on 1 December 2017, showed an increase in both breeding ewes and lambs, meaning the national flock now stood at 11.3 million head.

Ewes accounted for 6.7 million head on 1 December 2017, up 2% or 132,000 on 2016, while lamb and other sheep numbers increased by 72,000 to total 4.5 million head.

See also: English sheep numbers continue recovery to 12-year high

This growth follows high prices received in the summer and autumn of 2017 and a potential record-breaking lamb-rearing rate in 2017, said AHDB Beef and Lamb analyst Abigail Schofield.

Ms Schofield said a historically high number of lambs had been carried over into 2017, upping supply.

By comparison, cattle numbers at 1 December 2017 remained relatively stable, declining by just 0.2% (8,500 head) to 5.35 million head, although this concealed more drastic changes in stock classes, with dairy females between the ages of one and two years in decline.

“The number of dairy females in this age category has sharply declined by 6.4% [22,300 head] compared with December 2016, to 326,000 head in total,” said analyst Rebecca Oborne.

The fall was driven by low milk prices in 2015 and a switch to beef breed inseminations in dairy herds. “Beef females have increased by 3.8% [16,900 head] on the year, standing at 458,000 head,” Ms Oborne said.

Male cattle numbers declined by 0.3% (4,000 head) on the year compared with December 2016 to 1.46 million head.

But males younger than one year showed a 0.3% increase in numbers to total 741,000 head.

The data supports the AHDB forecast for the beef sector which predicts an increase in prime animals available for slaughter in 2018, Ms Oborne said.