IN his busiest months of the year Andrew Atkinson buys 8000 lambs a week. But whether its selecting wagonloads for his wholesale customers or sorting through entries at a primestock show theres one thing he never forgets: "the tail tells the truth".
"The feel of the dock is the best indicator of the level of fat cover on a lamb. Its a critical judgement in selecting lambs for slaughter. Ill be looking for lambs with the best conformation combined with the correct level of fat cover," says Mr Atkinson who will judge the prime lamb classes at the Winter Show.
Hes cautious about predicting trends for this winters prime lamb trade but acknowledges that there hasnt been a seasonal autumn lull.
"I would say that UK lamb consumption could be up this year and its possible that prices may improve towards Christmas and for the millennium trade.
"It all hinges on supply and demand and how many lambs are still to come on to the market. A large number of light lambs have been killed already but theres been a lot of sheep about this season. If demand increases and supplies start to tighten the trade will inevitably get dearer."
Mr Atkinson, 30, is the son of an auctioneer and as well as his hectic weekly schedule of buying at northern markets he finishes up to 20,000 lambs a year on his own farm at Kettlesing, near Harrogate, North Yorks. Last year he used 1000 tonnes of feed for lamb finishing. Clients include several leading meat wholesalers although his largest weekly lamb orders are bound for Cigmon Cymru Ltd, the Anglesey-based abattoir that supplies Tesco and Marks and Spencer.
For his supermarket trade hes looking for lamb carcasses that will grade R3L at 16-20.5kg but finds it frustrating that many farmers are still not drawing lambs in level batches.
"A pen of 10 lambs can include one at 13kg and one at 25kg. There are customers for these lambs but marketing them in this way as uneven pens is not how to sell them. Producers are still not putting their hands on lambs often enough. Sheep can change a lot in the course of a week, particularly in late autumn-early winter when theres a tendency for them to put on a lot of backfat."
While show lambs of the calibre bound for Lichfield will be expected to hang up as top quality E and U carcasses, he reckons barely one in every 10 lambs bought at weekly auctions is likely to achieve the highest grades.
"Its achievable, but producers have got to start looking at their ewe breed and consider the advantages of half-bred continentals to produce threequarter-bred continental prime lambs.
"Theres scope to take things a stage beyond the Mule and to cross her with a continental tup to produce a breeding female. A Beltex sired lamb out of a Texel x Mule ewe will produce lambs with the conformation the trade needs.
"Yes, that type of ewe might demand more shepherding compared with a Mule, but she greatly increases the potential to breed the sort of lambs that the market really wants and thats got to be in the best interest of sheep producers," says Mr Atkinson.