Lamb market outlook
- An increase in production is forecast for 2023, of approximately 2% year-on-year, driven by higher carry-over and a broadly stable lamb crop.
- Consumption is expected to weaken, linked to recessionary pressures and tighter consumer budgets.
- Imports are forecast to ease by nearly 20% year-on-year, driven by weaker domestic demand.
- Exports are forecast to grow in line with the projected domestic market balance, by around 15%.
Current market situation
Finished lamb prices started the year in a weaker position compared to recent years but have strengthened as the months have passed. While a higher carry-over of old season lambs and post-Christmas demand slump weighed on prices initially, the earlier timing of Easter and Ramadan have helped buoy prices into the spring. New season lamb prices have begun the season in record position, with lambs generally slower to come forwards.
Breeding flock and lamb crop
As of 1 December 2022, the UK breeding flock had grown by 1% from the year before to stand at 14.4 million ewes, according to Defra.
Assuming a slightly lower lambing percentage (based on variable commentary around scanning rates, and a relatively cold and wet spring), we forecast the 2023 lamb crop will remain broadly stable compared to last year at 17.15 million head.
We would expect growth in the UK breeding flock to slow over the coming year, following trends seen over the past three years. The national flock has been rebuilding ever since 2018, when the Beast from the East hit. However, annual growth rates have been slowing, and the flock remains smaller than it was pre-2018.
This is likely to be driven by the myriad of uncertainty facing businesses, particularly pressure from higher input costs, stronger adult sheep kill through 2022 and reduced direct subsidy. Many farms lack clarity around what changes to government agriculture policy will mean to their businesses, and this is expected to hinder confidence and productivity, particularly in more extensive systems. Some industry reports suggest that increasing availability of land (such as more frequent inclusion of sheep in arable rotations) may drive flock expansion, supporting numbers in some regions and systems. However, general pressures from input costs and policy uncertainty are expected to outweigh this for the overall breeding flock.
We therefore anticipate growth of 0.5% in the breeding flock by 1 December 2023.
Clean sheep slaughter
From Jan-Apr, Defra figures show that clean sheep kill has totalled just under 4 million head, up 3% year-on-year. This is reflective of a larger carry-over of hoggets from last year, influenced by adverse weather and high feed costs.
Assuming average conditions and grass growth, compared to 2022 we would expect a greater proportion of this year’s lambs to be slaughtered before Christmas. From June-December (inclusive) we forecast 7.8 million lambs will be slaughtered, 5% more than the previous year. Comparing to the five-year average to give a broader view, slaughter is forecast -0.7%.
Consequentially, total lamb slaughter for 2023 is forecast to reach 12.8 million head, up 4% from 2022.
Adult sheep slaughter
In 2022, adult sheep slaughter (ewes and rams) stood at 1.69 million, up just 0.6% from 2021. So far in 2023 (Jan-Apr), adult kill has totalled 559,000 head, up 5% versus the same period last year. Based on historic seasonality, we forecast total adult kill for 2023 to stand at 1.71 million, up 0.8% from 2022.
Sheep meat production
Clean sheep carcase weights have on average been lighter so far in 2023 than the same period a year ago, again a hangover from last year. Therefore - and despite greater throughputs - production of sheep meat during Jan-Apr has fallen by over 1% year-on-year.
Assuming average conditions and grass growth this season, we would expect weights to level off through the remainder of the year. Based on these assumptions, UK sheep meat production is forecast to reach 297,000 tonnes for the full year of 2023, up 2% from 2022.
HMRC data for the first quarter of 2023 shows that the quantity of sheep meat imported into the UK has returned to the long-term path of decline. 10,700 tonnes of fresh and frozen product was imported across the quarter, down 33% year-on-year.
New Zealand and Australia have been the key drivers; with both markets increasing their focus on China as a more attractive market. With our domestic new season supplies on their seasonal increase, and a subdued outlook for domestic consumption, we could see import levels below that of 2022 for the rest of the year. The UK-Australia and UK-New Zealand FTAs came into force at the end of May, which opens the door to more imports of red meat. However, our modelling suggests imports will not dramatically increase because of these agreements. This is because Australia and New Zealand already have access to lucrative markets in Asia, for example, and, all things remaining equal, are unlikely to divert product from these markets to the UK just because they will have tariff-free access. However, if circumstances change, then there is potential for more product to be sent to the UK, so there may be harmful consequences in the future.
For 2023, factoring in lower trade in the first quarter, imports are forecast to fall 19% in 2023.
During the first quarter of 2023, UK sheep meat exports grew 22% year-on-year to just over 21,000 tonnes. Shipments have increased to nearly all key EU markets, with growth in carcase shipments into France leading the way.
Market dynamics on the continent are looking favourable for UK exports in 2023. Declining production in some key EU markets and the diversion of southern hemisphere product into China are contributing to supply tightness. Coupled with higher production in the UK (exports are more closely related to production levels), and weaker domestic demand, we expect UK sheep meat exports to rise in 2023 in the region of 14% versus 2022.
Lamb consumption trends
The below consumption forecast is on track and remains unchanged from the February 2023 release.
The continued strain on shoppers’ budgets is going to have the biggest impact on behaviours going forward. Growth of the UK economy is expected to enter an extended period of sluggish growth, and inflationary pressures look set to continue.
Lamb through retail may benefit from some shoppers moving their out-of-home spend in-home, and could capitalise on occasion/celebration spend such as date night and family get-togethers. However, we predict more shoppers will be lost to cheaper proteins, and carcase balance needs to be monitored as cheaper cuts will be in most demand. The relative success of lamb at Christmas 2022 - which was partly driven by well-timed and deep promotional activity - highlights the importance of promotional strategy.
Given the economic forecast, lamb volumes via retail are predicted to decline further during 2023. We predict volume decline to be less steep around key occasions such as Eid and Easter, which would benefit from additional promotional activity. Out-of-home, we predict lamb will have the weakest recovery of the red meats. Overall, eating-out will still not return to 2019 levels, but takeaways and deliveries will remain bigger than pre-pandemic.
See further detail on 2022 consumption trends
In 2022, while the dominance of the COVID pandemic diminished, the country faced fresh challenges. Mounting costs, the energy crisis and supply chain issues were just a few of the economic factors resulting in extraordinary inflationary pressures. As a result, 59% of consumers are claiming to be worse off financially in recent months (AHDB/YouGov Consumer Tracker, November 2022).
This is impacting what food those people are buying, with 54% claiming to be spending less on the weekly food shop and 60% less on eating out. While buying less is one way to mitigate price rises, we also see consumers trading down what products they buy within categories, tiers, and stores.
As a premium protein, the potential challenges for lamb - in both retail and elsewhere - are obvious. In the last year, volumes were down -9.9% year-on-year, and value -17.9% (Kantar, 52 w/e 25 December 2022). With average price paid for lamb rising by 9.8% in the last year and an average price £3.19 per kg higher than average total meat, fish and poultry (MFP), it is unsurprising that lamb has lost share of the MFP market.
Lamb has been a less frequently consumed meat in recent years, with more niche appeal than some other proteins such as chicken or beef. Currently, 62% of households have bought in the past year, which is a drop of 7.2% year-on-year. However, only a quarter (24.8%) of households have bought in the past 4 weeks, showing it is becoming less commonly consumed. The buyers in the market are buying less often (although buying similar quantities when they do) suggesting that they are substituting with other, cheaper proteins. This reflects the one in four consumers claiming to be eating less red meat recently and among those 54% stating expense as a reason for cutting back, overtaking health and environmental reasons (AHDB/YouGov Consumer Tracker, November 2022). Within the primary lamb cuts, roasting joints account for the bulk of the losses, with 5,288 tonnes lost year-on-year. Chops account for a further 2,488 tonnes, steaks 1,890 tonnes, and finally mince was down 1,630 tonnes. More detail can be found on our lamb retail dashboard.
Whilst broadly the out-of-home market continued to see a recovery, with spend up 20.5% year on year, the story is less positive for lamb. Lamb volumes were down by 6% year-on-year (AHDB estimates based on Kantar out-of-home, 52 w/e 25 December 2022). Dine-in and on-the-go volumes were 44% higher than a year ago because there were more restrictions in 2021, while takeaways, which account for more lamb volume, fell by 20%. With high margin pressures on foodservice outlets and menu space at a premium, lamb is frequently being dropped from menus in favour of cheaper options. Price-sensitive consumers are also choosing lamb less often. For full details see our lamb foodservice dashboard.
The lamb outlook might be mitigated, if the industry:
- Encourage tasty and versatile lamb dishes which may be stretched with other ingredients such as pulses and vegetables. Inspire batch cooking and filling meals, coupled with retail promotional support. This will benefit cheaper cuts.
- Highlight where leftovers might be used a second day for economical meals that reduce food waste.
- Use social media to showcase easy to cook, simple lamb dishes as many consumers worry that lamb may be difficult to cook.
- Capture meal occasions lost from out-of-home by inspiring treaty dinners such as fake aways or restaurant quality dine-in recipes. This will benefit more expensive cuts such as roasting joints or chops.
- Capitalise on festivals such as Eid and Easter, as well as building on gains made at Christmas 2022.
- Position lamb as a good option for get-togethers. BBQ inspiration is key during the summer months, with roast dinners popular year-round.
- Encourage consumers to continue to eat out-of-home. Opportunities in the eating-out marketinclude value for money, personalisation, indulgence, quality cues and pushing reputational factors such as health, sustainability and backing British. Takeaway/delivery is also an important trend for lamb to capitalise.
- Encourage shoppers in-store and online by improving the experience of the meat aisle, find out how for in-store here and online here.
- Address health concerns by communicating the health benefits of lamb, such as B12 and iron.
- Highlight the provenance story of lamb – terminology such as grass-fed and regional appellations can provide quality cues for more affluent shoppers.
- In the longer term, look to maintain and build consumer trust, demonstrating where farming values (animal welfare, environmental stewardship and expertise) are shared with consumers. See our consumer reputation landscape hub for more information.
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