16 November 2001



THE sheep industry has taken the biggest hit in terms of foot-and-mouth slaughterings, which leaves Jane Connor with an unenviable task.

MLCs senior economic analyst dealing with sheep admits she cannot forecast the outlook for the sheep market with any real confidence.

While figures for cull losses are available, she simply does not know how many ewes, draft ewes, hoggets and new season lambs will be killed on welfare grounds.

Nobody can accurately predict how many normally-exported light lambs will reach the food chain following intensive sales promotion, nor the effect of this on demand for standard weight lambs.

As there is no indication when exports will resume and there will be no light lamb buy-up next year, some mountain ewes will not be tupped. The question is how many? Many factors, including the retention of many ewe lambs for restocking, or a serious public scare over links between scrapie and BSE could make nonsense of any forecast

If the December 2001 census shows the size of UK breeding flock is the anticipated 14% down at 16m head, enough ewes were in the right place for tupping, and the lambing rate is better than the exceptionally low one in 2001, Mrs Connor expects 7% more lambs to reach markets next year.

Finding outlets for the 12.49m lambs she thinks could be born in 2002 will depend on the reopening of export markets, and the effect of a new rule dictating the removal of the spinal cord of lambs aged over six months shipped to France.

"It is fair to say that the sheep industry has reached a watershed and is already shaking out," she says. "Nobody really knows what is likely to happen on farms, or in the market-place. But lack of profit in recent years, rising production costs, a shortage of skilled labour, reduced availability of tack and the uptake of environmental schemes will cut sheep numbers."

David Croston, MLCs head of sheep strategy, says producers have to face facts, including the shift of support away from direct subsidies, the theoretical risk of scrapie in sheep and unilateral specific risk material measures introduced by the French.

"The MLC sheep strategy council has identified action required by the government, MLC and industry organisations to ensure its vision of modest and sustainable recovery can be achieved," says Mr Croston.

Consumers must be given greater reassurance, which has to be linked with practical sheep identification and traceability. Efforts to export sheepmeat need to be refocused, the National Scrapie Plan should be accelerated, and communication between all sectors of the sheep industry improved and increased.

Mr Croston believes even if the long-term fall in lamb consumption cannot be reversed, it can be slowed. Developing, and effectively promoting, convenience products could change the attitude of young consumers, but farmers must produce the type of animals required using welfare and environmentally friendly methods.

Livestock markets, abattoirs, transport companies all have their roles too if consumer confidence is to be fully restored.

"Modest and sustainable recovery can be achieved" – David Croston.

"The sheep industry has reached a watershed" – Jane Connor.

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