Review of 1997 Sheep & lambs

December, 1997

Compiled by FWi staff

Lamb prices started the year at their highest levels for some time. But after March, they began a decline that has yet to show signs of stopping. Farmers appeared to pay over the odds for stores and then found little room for profit this autumn.


  • Buoyant demand for sheep meat means record prices for cull ewes, which average £43 (light) and £56 (heavy) nation-wide. Finished lambs sell at more than 150p/kg, according to Meat and Livestock Commission statistics.

  • Exports boost old season lamb prices, despite Sterlings strength. In the last week of January, sheepmeat exports total 2,450 t, 10% up on the same week in 1996. But unfavourable exchange rates lower the price of light lambs which drop by 12p/kg.


  • Overall averages in first week of February in England and Wales are 142.89p/kg – up 1.71p/kg on the week and 10.49p/kg up on the year.

  • Higher lamb prices and a 7% drop in sheep annual premiums will force hill farmers to intensify their operations, says Scottish Agricultural College economist, Stuart Ashworth. But increasing the volume of lamb could trigger lower prices and higher subsidies, setting of a cycle that benefits nobody, he warns.


  • Lamb prices begin their traditional pre-Easter rise but seem likely to level out well below the 1996 BSE-induced peak of over 190p/kg. The strength of Sterling makes it difficult for exporting abattoirs to profitably exploit firm markets in northern Europe.

  • Best Easter lambs sell for well over 200p/kg, with a marked premium for lighter lambs in some areas. At Worcester, auctioneer Clive Roads says the handy-weights are making up to 20p/kg more than heavy lambs. Top price is 215p/kg.


  • New season lamb drops by 17p/kg to 145p/kg. Farmers and abattoirs blame retailers who, they say, are securing supplies from New Zealand. The slow take-up prompts farmers to delay selling stock, resulting in over-heavy animals, say auctioneers. But prices could steady if lamb quality improves.


  • Sterlings strength continues to hamper lamb exports. Finished lamb prices are pegged-back well under last years record levels. Values at auction struggle to climb above 115p/kg, compared with 138p/kg this time in 1996.


  • Lamb prices plunge as plentiful supplies come forward and hit a difficult market. Average values fall 14p in one week to 106p/kg. Marketings increase by 21% as farmers finish hay- and silage-making and re-focus on selling stock.


  • Farmers bid hard for store lambs, forcing prices up. At many auctions, prices are higher than last year as many producers prepare to winter sheep rather than cattle.


  • Store lambs values continue to hit record levels, prompting some to question whether buyers are pricing themselves out of a profit. Average store prices are well over £40/hd. But finished lambs are struggling to top 100p/kg. Buyers, it appears, are banking on price rises in the autumn and winter.


  • Despite a big flush of lambs hitting the market, prices remain steady. Increased exports have boosted returns, say auctioneers, with 50 lorries leaving Dover every week. The average value in England and Wales is just under 114p/kg. But some analysts fear the market will become more volatile as the back-log of lambs is sold.


  • Estimates indicate slaughterings over the past three months are well down on 1996. This has been a difficult year and there may well be a lot of lambs to come, according to Jane Harrold of the Meadow Valley Livestock marketing group, Stratford-upon-Avon.

  • The Meat & Livestock Commission also expects slaughter numbers to rocket between November and the end of the season. The number of lambs waiting to come onto the market appears to be “significantly up” on 1996 – possibly by as much as 17% for the time of year, the MLC reports.


  • Lamb prices fall to less than 97.8p/kg, fuelled by fears of traffic chaos caused by the French lorry-drivers strike. The strike has come at the worst possible time of year, says Shrewsbury auctioneer Peter Willcock.

  • More lambs will be held back in the face of the problems, Mr Willcock adds. But exactly how many will depend on farmers nerve and forage availability.

  • Export of sheep carcasses to France so far in 1997 are 15% down on the corresponding period last year.


  • Prices continue to suffer from the strength of Sterling and a high proportion of heavyweight lambs being sold through auctions.

  • By 7 December, markets across England and Wales were averaging less than 93p/kg – leaving values about two-thirds of those seen a year ago and almost 60p/kg down since the start of the year

  • Producers blame the strength of Sterling which is now worth more than 10 francs and almost 3 Deutschmarks.

  • A relatively large carryover of hoggets into the new year will continue the pressure on prices, forecasts MLC economist Tony Fowler.

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