UK sheep flock numbers revised downward

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

By Bethan Wilkins

In the final figures from the Defra 2020 June Agricultural Survey, the UK sheep flock figure has been revised downward. At 32.7 million, the total number of sheep and lambs was 3% down on 2019 levels on 1 June.

The drop is particularly influenced by a decline in the Welsh sheep flock. These figures were not available when the preliminary UK sheep flock numbers were first released in October. The Welsh data reports a 6% decrease in the total flock and an 8% decline in animals over one year old (mostly breeding ewes). Such a noticeable decline in the number of Welsh breeding animals is perhaps a little surprising, and is more extreme than the trends recorded in the other UK regions. However, we had been expecting uncertainty over our trading relationship with the EU to drive some further contraction in flock numbers.

Trends in the breeding flock are not always carried through to later in the year. Nonetheless, the UK breeding flock in June is now pegged at 15.4 million head, over 4% down on the year and the lowest number since 2012. If this is accurate, given the scale of the decline, it seems most likely that numbers put to the tup last autumn would also be lower than the year before.

The number of lambs under one year old on farm at 1 June was similar to the year before, at 16.5 million (-1% year-on-year). To date, lamb slaughter figures since June have been a little higher than year-earlier levels (+2%). This is probably because some lambs have been sent forward earlier than usual, drawn out by strong prices and the trade-related market uncertainty that was surrounding 2021. The kill since June is also 5% higher than the same period in 2018, when the number of lambs on the ground in the June survey was also similar to last year’s number.

These survey results will be combined with industry intelligence to produce the 2021 production outlook for the UK sheep meat sector, which will be published at the end of this month.

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