ENGLISH SHEEP producers look set to continue enjoying the very much healthier cull ewe returns of recent years, forecasts the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX).

At the same time, the market in 2004/5 and beyond should offer very much greater stability and less uncertainty than in the past.

Healthy underlying market prospects coupled with the removal of the Sheep Annual Premium barrier to timely marketings will, EBLEX believes, allow English producers to plan their culling and cull finishing with far more precision to take full advantage of market opportunities.

Historically, the cull ewe market has been plagued by considerable swings and uncertainty.

Since the Foot and Mouth epidemic, however, the market has stabilised and strengthened. Pre-FMD in 2000, heavier weight cull ewes averaged around £27/head at auction. Last year this average had risen to over £43/head.

The smaller size of the current breeding flock nationwide means that annual ewe cullings are now in the region of 1.8 million head – almost 20% down on pre-FMD levels.

And with a stable flock size for the immediate future there is little prospect of any substantial increase in cull ewe availability.

In contrast, demand for cull ewes remains as strong as ever to serve a mutton market in which the UK ethnic sector accounts for an estimated 80-85% of consumption. 

As the mainstay of the cuisine traditionally favoured by the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities, meat from cull ewes – especially the larger carcases from the English flock – is likely to continue to be in strong demand.

Cull ewe values reached exceptionally high levels at auction markets in England for a short period of time this April, with heavier weight ewes exceeding £55/head for a number of weeks.

These high prices occurred towards the end of the obligatory retention period for ewes upon which a Sheep Annual Premium claim had been lodged. 

As a result, few producers were able to take advantage of the opportunity they presented for fear of jeopardising their subsidy claims. Since the retention period ended on 15 May, marketings have increased and prices have eased back.

The ending of Sheep Annual Premium under a reformed CAP next year will remove this serious distortion.

This, in turn, will even-out the marked fluctuation in prices the interrupted ewe supply has created, benefiting all sides of the industry.