By FWi reporters

FOOT-AND-MOUTH has hit the sheep sector harder than all the other meat sectors.

Already in decline, the onset of the disease in February has seen a 15% reduction in the breeding flock through forced culls.

Prime lamb slaughterings are also down – 30% lower than last year at 9.2m.

But the market has shown little benefit, with the export ban cancelling out any upward price movement that lower supplies might have brought about.

However, with the export gates reopened, the supply/demand equation should look healthier, with experts hoping for better prices in 2002.

As this year closes, lamb prices have seen a temporary respite, lifting to post-F&M highs.

By the beginning of December they had climbed to 210p/kg deadweight, well above last years figure of 174p/kg; a remarkable turn-around after a serious slump in the autumn, when prices fell to 140p/kg.

Prospects for next year are in the hands of the exporters, who normally take about 30% of production.

Although EU legislation has lifted the export ban, any meaningful recovery in volumes leaving the UK is not expected until the New Year.

Frances unilateral action to impose a ban on spinal cord for all carcasses over six months old poses the biggest threat, as it normally takes 70% of UK exports.

But lamb supply will be down, with first quarter levels predicted to be 6% below last year and an amazing 25% below normal clean sheep slaughterings of about 3.5m.

This confounds earlier predictions of a surplus of light lambs, even though the light lamb scheme only accounted for 525,000 head, well below its 1m target.

Although New Zealand lamb is being imported as supplies tighten before the New Year, if exporters get trade going there is every chance that the market will be tight and prices will improve.

To view price trend for lamb click here