By Peter Grimshaw

ONCE the cull ewe and the wool clip paid the rent – now, both are virtually worthless, as the seasonal collapse in ewe prices hits new lows earlier in the autumn than ever.

Some of the smaller animals are coming to the market with their wool still on.

Auctioneers up and down Britain all report a reasonable trade for the best animals, with a decent frame and some flesh.

But they go on to admit that returns in many cases have failed to cover market costs.

One even confided being unable to arrange a give-away deal for some particularly unappealing animals.

Many farmers last year put off the inevitable by keeping back anything that looked likely to survive the winter and throw a lamb or two.

That option is no longer available, and they are now resigned to reducing flock numbers, even if it means accepting a few pence a head for small, mountain-type ewes.

The result in some areas is a deluge of cull ewes, with Paul Griffin, at Exeter, reporting 25-30% more this year than last.

Philip Blackman-Howard sold 2000 ewes in Hereford on Wednesday, 300-400 more than in the same week last year.

“Cull ewes are coming a month earlier than last year,” reports Mr Blackman-Howard.

“The very best – Mule types that were neither too fat nor lean – are averaging £18-20.

But little Welsh ewes are £1 apiece or even less. Its just not a commodity the market wants.”

He says September to October normally sees the lowest point, so he is expecting worse to come later.

From Aberdeen, Philip Reid reports prices less than a third of those realised two years ago. “Numbers are the same as ever, but at last Fridays sale we averaged £9.88/hd,” he says.

“Last year the average was a few pence over £22, and the year before, above £32.”

His advice is for farmers to swallow the unpleasant medicine smartly. “Sell them, and the sooner the better. It isnt going to improve.”

Many farmers decided to clear the decks as the drought began to bite in many areas, adding to the numbers.

The prospect of some quick grass following recent rains may help to stem the flow.

Auctioneers all say there is no trouble selling bigger animals that are well-fleshed without being fat.

So although none will actually commit themselves to advising farmers who can afford it to put a bit of weight on the sheep before selling, it may be an option if it doesnt steal grass from the lambs and if immediate cash is not a priority.

“Ive noticed a bit of interest over the last couple of Fridays in grazing ewes, and this may pick up after the rain.

“But bills have to be paid, and some farmers need the cash now,” says Mr Griffin. “The normal store buyer, such as the dairy farmer, is hesitant.”

The lack of an export trade, thanks to the new rules governing specified risk material, doesnt help.

French buyers are reluctant to buy British split carcasses and are sourcing instead from Spain and Ireland.

But Paul Griffin says the absence of export buyers is not a factor at Exeter. He is positive about prices paid at the top end and saw buyers bidding to a top price of £32 a head last Friday. But the average was just £13.17, lower than last year.

“There was a large percentage of small and plain ewes, some of which went down to 50p/hd, and that was what pulled the average down,” he comments.

“But the better ewes are still a goodish trade, relative to everything else, at £18-25.”

The general view is that vendors have accepted the trade and are resigned to the prices, knowing that they have had all the value they are going to get from the sheep.