Welsh fear big falls in price at ewe auctions
By Robert Davies
BREEDERS are predicting sharp price falls at the big Welsh ewe sales, though they remain upbeat in public.
Rhys Jones, chairman of the Welsh Mule Sheep Breeders Association, is "confident that demand will be brisk again this year". But his members acknowledge, privately, that a host of negative factors threaten returns on the 23,700 yearlings and 39,200 ewe lambs entered at four association sales starting on Sept 9.
Confidence has been undermined by the collapse of the prime lamb trade and by cull ewe prices that are about 30% of their 1996 level.
Specialist ewe producers fear their regular customers will try to cut replacement costs by taking one extra lamb crop from older sheep.
Demand will also be weakened if flying flock operators decide to tup crossbred ewe lambs withheld from slaughter when prices fell last spring. The quality of these may not be high, but they will produce reasonable lambs if put to a good terminal sire.
A phone survey of specialist halfbred ewe producers indicated that most expect yearlings to make about £10 a head less than last year. Ewe lamb prices are expected be £15 to £20 a head down.
Field officer for the Welsh Mules, Miah Lewis, admits that while most buyers are trying to talk down prices, ewe sales will be affected by the sheep industrys problems. And a national increase in available ewe numbers will not help.
"But we have had a lot of inquiries from new customers, especially at Sheep 98," says Mr Lewis. "Farmers are looking for high-quality prolific ewes; the question is how much they will be prepared to pay for them. We will not know the answer until bidding starts at our first sale at Welshpool."
Secretary of the Welsh Mule and Welsh Mountain Sheep societies, Moss Jones, concedes that a difficult season is in prospect, but refuses to be too pessimistic. "Breeders are depressed but I am confident that quality sheep like Welsh Mules will sell well. Extra demand could come from upland farmers following the disastrous fall in exports of lightweight mountain breed lambs to southern Europe.
"The £ remains strong, and the collapse in demand for skins from Russia means mountain lamb pelts are worth 50p rather than £4 each. These factors make it difficult to export profitably. I am worried about the impact on sales of mountain ewes if farmers go for bigger sheep to supply other markets."
Reports from early hill ewe sales in England, Wales and Scotland indicate lacklustre demand with prices 50% down at some centres, a severe blow on top of poor finished and store lamb returns.