18 February 2000

Sheep prices on rise but import fears

By Simon Wragg

Lamb 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.

Despite the strong £, British supplies are still attracting strong overseas trade. This year, France – a major player – and Italy have increased tonnage by 600t and 360t. "Although exchange rates influence trade, the gap between domestic prices in the UK and overseas is more than compensating in many cases," says Meat and Livestock Commissions Lesley Green.

As a result, the market has witnessed a succession of rises over the past few weeks. But, 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. "About 20,000t of chilled lamb is imported into the EU each year. The amount is set under a gentlemens agreement; it rose slightly last year and the (EU) Commission was made aware of it. So, I think its unlikely to be higher this year," she says.

But imports from elsewhere cannot be ruled out. Notably, given the strength of the £, imports from the Republic look more attractive, says John Bailey of Lloyd Maunder.

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

Cull ewes were up on the week with meatier sorts over £40 each (ewe exports now stand at 1000t so far this year, double last years level). &#42