Sheep population: Defra’s June census shows continued shrinking of the UK sheep flock

Thursday, 4 January 2024

Key points

  • UK sheep flock stood at 31.8 million head as of 1 June 2023, 4% smaller versus a year ago
  • Female breeding flock contracted by 2.4% year on year to 15.4 million
  • 6% reduction in number of lambs aged under 1 year old, supporting reports of a delayed lamb crop in 2023/24
  • Increased number of old season lambs, reflective of a greater carry-over into 2023 and later sales

UK sheep population at its lowest in 12 years

Defra census figures recorded the UK sheep flock at 31.8 million head as of 1 June 2023, down 4.1% on the previous year. This is the lowest recorded population since 2011.

The female breeding flock totalled 15.4 million head, a 2.4% decline compared to 2022. This was driven by a 219,000 (-1.7%) reduction in the number of ewes kept for further breeding or slaughter compared to the 2022 count. Meanwhile, the number of ewes for first time breeding was down 168,000 (-6.1%) on the year. These reductions may be linked to the high costs of feed and other inputs, alongside market uncertainty, causing farmers to scale back production.

The greatest reduction was seen in the number of lambs aged under 1 year, which was down 998,000 head (6.1%) year-on-year to stand at 15.5 million. This would suggest either a smaller or delayed lamb crop for this season, reflective of a relatively wet and cold spring and industry reports of variable scanning rates.

Ram numbers saw a more subtle decline, down 0.9% to stand at 387,000 head. This continues a general trend of long-term contraction, in tandem with the shrinking breeding flock. Improvements in ram productivity and increasing focus on bettering genetics through selective breeding are also likely contributors to this trend.

Conversely, other sheep and lambs aged 1 year and over increased in number, up 18,000 head (+3.7%) to stand at 517,000 in June. We saw a larger carry-over of old season lambs into 2023 likely due to poor weather and high feed costs. This was reflected in last summer’s auction market data, with a higher number of old season lambs (hoggets) marketed later in the season compared to previous years.

Welsh flock sees steepest contraction

Comparing across the nations, the greatest contraction was seen in Wales, down 195,000 head (-4.2%) in the female breeding flock year-on-year. England and Scotland saw 1.6% and 1.7% declines, respectively, in breeding female sheep populations.

UK sheep population on 1 June by nation

Graph showing the split of the UK sheep population across the various nations 

Source: Defra

Looking ahead

Looking forward to 2024, the sheep population and production may continue to contract, with fewer breeding ewes to produce next year’s lamb crop. Of course, conditions at tupping and lambing will also influence this picture. Our soon to be released market outlook will explore predictions for 2024 in greater detail.

Image of staff member Becky Smith

Becky Smith

Analyst (Livestock)

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