No one’s in any doubt that North of England Mule gimmer lambs will have little trouble finding buyers this season. But as thousands hit the dip again this week in the final preparations for the opening sales, the big question is just how much are buyers prepared to pay to make sure Mule breeders stay in business?

After two disastrous autumn selling seasons, this one has to deliver – and that means a big upturn in average prices. Bluetongue zoning doesn’t look like it’s going to be a major problem – although buyers in the south and midlands are making it clear they’d prefer to buy lambs that have already been jabbed.

All eyes have been on the shearling sales in recent weeks and at Skipton on Tuesday the demand for 3500 Mules confirmed that this autumn’s trade for breeding sheep could be the best for years.

“A very nice, steady trade with sheep looking well despite the difficult summer weather. The best shearlings were £100-£110 with good sheep making £85-£95 and an overall average of £83. The higher fat lamb price is helping and it’s certainly encouraging for the gimmer sales to come,” said Skipton market auctioneer John Hanson.

But as soon as the gavel started to fall on the first lots sold at Bicester earlier this month it looked like the breeding sheep market was on the up. The traditional Bicester Fair has been split into several sales this summer, but the first session proved to be a bonanza with many vendors taken aback as theaves started to show a £20 lift on the year.

Suffolk-cross theaves were a flyer at the first Bicester sale reaching £106. Good-quality North of England Mule theaves made up to £90 apiece with plenty in the £80-£85 range – a rise of about £7 a head.

Bicester Fair auctioneer Simon Draper leaves his job at Thame market on 1 September to move into the heart of Mule and Swaledale country with Harrison and Hetherington at Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria.

He reckons his regular theave vendors at Bicester are expecting a strong gimmer lamb trade when they head north to re-stock. “Our second sale at Bicester last week saw Suffolk cross theaves a bit lower and averaging £80. Mules, too, were a little easier at about £74. But prices for Mule gimmer lambs will definitely be up, although it’s a brave man who can say by how much. I might stick my neck out and predict that running lambs could look the dearest this autumn.”

Prime lamb returns up at least £10 a head so far this summer – and predictions for prices to remain firm – are only helping to off-set rising costs for finishers rather than lift profits. But with plenty of cull ewes making £80, there’s a degree of cash and confidence in the market place – but it now needs to head north.

Buckinghamshire sheep farmer Eddie Bulman fared well at Bicester’s first sale and sold 360 Suffolk-cross ewes to average £92.53. “Gimmer lamb breeders will be pleased the Bicester trade was good. A month ago I might have said gimmer lambs would be on fire, but I think it’s more sensible to say they will show a significant increase.”

Fears among Mule producers that the prospect of high corn incomes might drive more land on big estates in the south go under the plough aren’t seen as a major threat to the gimmer lamb trade as corn prices disappoint.

“A truck, a dog, a dosing gun and some electric wire – and you’re in the sheep business for a lot less money than you can grow corn,” says Mr Bulman.

But Northumberland Mule breeder Willie Wetherspoon of Houseteads, Hexham, says gimmer lambs need to make £60-£70 apiece this autumn.

“The hill sector is in a serious cash crisis and needs a big injection of income from these gimmer lambs. We’re all sinking under the huge increases in costs and the effect of two catastrophic autumn seasons.

“Gimmer lambs have got to be substantially up in price to keep us in business. This is going to be a critical time for Mule producers,” says Mr Wetherspoon, who has 250 North of England Mule gimmer lambs to sell.