By Robert Davies

TOP-QUALITY hoggets are expected to make good prices in the run-up to Easter.

Poor weather and a reduction in the number of ewes sponged to supply early spring lamb have reduced supplies of new-season lambs. And hoggets will be needed to meet the still-strong traditional seasonal demand across Europe.

Auctioneers, who have quizzed farmers about the number of new-season lambs likely to be forward before the bank holiday, say there are fewer very early concentrate-finished ones in the pipeline. Wet weather is also slowing growth rates at grass.

After a quiet spell there are now signs of improved demand in France, the UKs biggest export market. This should benefit vendors with export quality hoggets, as should the “sell British” campaigns being run by supermarket chains.

Wholesalers are reluctant to predict how the market will move, but they anticipate prices will firm around the end of the month. Returns would be even better but for the crash in the price of skins. Abattoirs are now getting 50p for skins that were worth £10 last year for processing in Turkey and sale to Russia.

Owen Owen, managing director of abattoir operator Cwmni Cig Mon, forecasts that hogget prices should, at worst, be stable over the next two weeks – and should respond to Easter demand. But he warns suppliers that they should avoid the risk of excessively fat carcasses by selling sheep when they are ready.

“New season lambs are appearing very slowly, so hoggets are in demand, but quality is variable,” says Mr Owen. “Producers have responded well to weather conditions and have managed to keep hoggets fairly clean, or are shearing them before marketing.”

The average price of old-season lambs rose 0.2p to 92.39p/kg last week, despite a 19% hike in entries. This made the average return 4p/kg higher than in the same week in 1998 when 12,000 fewer hoggets were marketed. Lesley Green, senior economic analyst with the Meat and Livestock Commission, is optimistic that prices will hold or possibly rise over the next fortnight.

She has detected no point-of-sale resistance to high retail prices and anticipates that producers will benefit from strong Easter demand for lamb. “There is more confidence in the whole meat market than we have seen for some time,” she says.