Defra’s December survey reveals a drop in UK sheep and cattle populations

Thursday, 4 April 2024


According to Defra’s latest census from 1 December 2023, the total UK sheep flock has seen a significant drop of 5.1% (-1.14m head) year-on-year, to 21.2 million head.

A 616,000 head (-4.3%) contraction in the female breeding flock accounted for most of the total reduction, although the “all other sheep and lambs” category saw a more pronounced drop in terms of percentage (-6.6%).

Total breeding flock in the last 10 years

graph showing total breeding flock in the last 10 years

Source: Defra

The latest data shows that December 2023 held the lowest number of breeding females seen on record (according to Defra data reaching back to 1996), now at 13.8 million head. These trends follow the trajectory seen in the June censusReduced lamb production is expected in 2024, following the contraction of the breeding flock.


Meanwhile, the UK cattle population dipped to 9.2 million head in December 2023, 1.8% below the previous year.

The total breeding herd (which makes up 34% of the total population) had declined by 2.2% and stood at 3.2 million head at time of the survey. The reduction was driven by a decline in the beef breeding herd of 61,000 head (-4.4%). The dairy breeding herd recorded marginal contraction of 9,000 head (-0.5%).

UK cattle population

Chart showing UK cattle number

Source: Defra

The number of females between 1 and 2 years dipped from the high number recorded in June but remained stable on the year. Meanwhile, the number of females under the age of 1 year continued to tighten, by 42,000 head against December 2022.

Although there was a rise in the population of male cattle over the age of 2 years, the number of males younger than 2 years old experienced a decline of 73,000 head. This meant the total male cattle number contracted by 2.6% on the year.

The reduction in youngstock numbers aligns with trends in calf birth registrations. In 2023, the number of calves born in GB fell more steeply than in previous years, driven by fewer calves born to the suckler herd. Meanwhile, registrations of dairy-beef animals continued to rise, reflecting uptake in beef semen among dairy producers. For a more in-depth look into GB dairy-beef cattle numbers, see here.

Image of staff member Annabel Twinberrow

Annabel Twinberrow

Trainee Analyst

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