By Philip Clarke

LIVE sheep exports by the producer-owned Farmers Ferry have dropped by about one-third as cheaper imports from central Europe start to eat into the companys southern European markets.

“Currently we are doing about 27,000 sheep a week, compared with nearer 40,000 this time last year,” says marketing director Mike Gooding.

“In a way its a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we have taken more lambs off the home market, so supply has tightened and the UK price has firmed, making us less competitive on the export market.”

The strength of Sterling has also hit overseas sales. But the most significant factor has been the growth of exports from Romania, Hungary and Poland.

“Good-quality Romanian lambs are arriving in the EU for as little as 10 apiece,” says Mr Gooding.

The appearance of lambs from the east is not surprising, says Meat and Livestock Commission economist Jane Connor.

Livestock production is just starting to recover in those countries after 10 years of decline, and they are also eager to earn western currency.

Latest trade figures show that, in the first eight months of this year, Romania shipped 2833t of sheepmeat on the hoof, 10% more than last year, almost all of it going to Greece.

Hungary supplied 7519t live, 28% up on last year, mostly to Italy.

Mr Gooding says the new competition needs to be watched closely. “It all adds to the challenge. We knew the live export market would reach equilibrium and perhaps that is where we are now.

“If we cant compete on price, we have to improve our offering in terms of quality of product and consistency of supply.”

He also points to the fact that the company is now doing 10,000 lambs a week through its abattoir at Kenilworth, Warwickshire, for export.

“This means our total sheep business is on a par with last year.”