26 November 1999

No point producing inferior quality lambs

SHEEP enterprises must pay their way or be abandoned and the industry cant expect to carry on producing inferior lambs and hoping that someone will buy them.

These were the stark words of industry experts speaking at the NSA eastern regions Great Sheep Debate meeting in Newmarket. "The fallout from the current crisis will have a profound effect on all sections of the sheep industry," said the organisations chairman, Chris Lewis.

"Lowland flocks relative immunity to change has largely been because most of them are subsidiary to other farm enterprises. Today enterprises must be primary and pay their way."

Making sheep pay their way means breeding and selecting good conformation lambs at the correct time for marketing, according to independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings. "There is not an oversupply of quality lamb, but there is an oversupply of lambs the consumer does not want.

"Are we going to supply a product that people want or produce one that we will be paid low prices for?" she challenged producers attending the meeting. Ms Stubbings blamed the current oversupply of lamb on the guide price paid in the 1980s, which shielded the industry from market forces.

"Variable premium meant the industry was oblivious to market forces. The UK breeding flock has increased by 40% since 1979. Our saving grace has been the French export trade, but as the £ has strengthened, exports have weakened leading to flooding of the home market."

Plans to move Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance subsidies from a headage to an area basis is likely to mean a fall in numbers of sheep in the hills and uplands, which can only be good news for lowland producers, believes Ms Stubbings.

"It is clear that many hill and upland producers consider themselves to be overstocked and would prefer to keep fewer sheep providing their income was guaranteed. When payments move to an area basis the national flock is likely to contract.

"If this does not happen, lowland producers will be left with a marketable product, but hill producers without. The future of the sheep trade depends on the market not being flooded with inferior quality lamb which is difficult to sell and squeezes quality lamb margins," she concluded. &#42