By Simon Wragg

SHEEP exports continue to underpin prices with further rises seen this week.

But while this is welcome news for producers, traders warn it could lead to earlier-than-usual demand for imported new-season stock.

Auction reports put this weeks averages at about 103-107p/kg – depending on location – as numbers fall. Cull ewes were up on the week, with meatier sorts over 40 each.

Despite the strong Pound, British supplies are still attracting strong overseas trade.

This year, France – a major player – and Italy have increased tonnage by 600t and 360t, with the gap between domestic prices in the UK and overseas more than compensating for the strong Pound, says Meat and Livestock Commissions Lesley Green.

As a result, the market has risen over the past few weeks and as it goes up, so does the risk of retailers and caterers looking to stock or use imported new season product.

Already, chilled New Zealand lamb has hit supermarket shelves and volumes may be higher in the early part of the season as a result of strong hogg values, warns Mrs Green.

However, NZ imports are likely to be capped..

But imports from elsewhere cannot be ruled out. Notably, with the Irish having a suggested 15% advantage in the exchange rate against the UK, says John Bailey of Lloyd Maunder.

Although Bord Bia, the Irish food board, cannot confirm lamb numbers (the breeding flock fell in the December census to 4.3m, down 4%), availability is not expected to be affected, says a spokesman.