Poor grass growth following the harsh winter of 2012-13 is being blamed for a sharp reduction in lambing percentages, especially in earlier-lambing flocks.

Tim Wilkinson’s Bedfordshire pregnancy diagnosis business scans about 400,000 sheep around England and Wales each year.

He said scanning percentages had been 10-15% below average this season.

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“Last year, sheep got into poor condition during the cold winter, and many only fattened up just before tupping, when it was too late to flush their eggs,” he explained.

“Those farmers who really looked after their sheep and kept their condition up have got scanning percentages well over 200%, but others are down to 150%.

“Unfortunately, supplement feeding was very expensive, so producers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t – it’s been really tough.”

Many producers had cut their ewe numbers back hard last year as well, said Mr Wilkinson.

“In 37 years of scanning it’s by far the biggest drop in ewe numbers I’ve seen,” he added. “Coupled with lower lambing percentages as well it is going to reduce the number of finished lambs by a big margin.”

“In 37 years of scanning it’s by far the biggest drop in ewe numbers I’ve seen.”
Tim Wilkinson

John Hoskin, who keeps about 1,200 ewes at Maiden Castle Farm, Dorchester, Dorset, said the early-lambing flock had really struggled. “We had a lot of barren ewes, and the lambing percentage was 15-20% below normal, at 155%,” he said.

“The ewes suffered badly with the lack of grass last spring, and although we did supplement feed them, they hadn’t really recovered by the time they went to the tup.”

Mr Hoskin’s feed costs jumped by 50% last spring, but the extra feed did mean that the later-lambing flock was not so badly affected.

“They have scanned at 207%, which is slightly below the 210-215% norm,” he said. “We’re just starting to lamb them now, and it’s going well so far.”

However, National Sheep Association chief executive Phil Stocker said a lot could change by the time the lambs were finished, with improved survivability likely to offset the smaller crop.

“The earliest third of lambing flocks were light, with many single lambs, but it’s getting better as we get into the main thrust of lambing,” he added.

“The ewes are in good condition, with plenty of milk, and the lambs are strong – with the grass now growing, things are looking better.”