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Farming: Defra’s census shows continued shrinking of the UK sheep flock

By David Porter

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Defra census figures recorded the UK sheep flock at 31.8 million head as of 1 June 2023, down 4.1 per cent on the previous year.

This is the lowest recorded population since 2011.

The female breeding flock totalled 15.4 million head, a 2.4 per cent decline compared to 2022.

This was driven by a 219,000 (-1.7 per cent) 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 per cent) on the year.

Becky Smith
Becky Smith

ADHB analyst Becky Smith said: "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 per cent) 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 per cent 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 (+3.7per cent) 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."

The Welsh flock has seen the steepest contraction as she explained: "Comparing across the nations, the greatest contraction was seen in Wales, down 195,000 head (-4.2per cent) in the female breeding flock year-on-year. England and Scotland saw 1.6 per cent and 1.7 per cent declines, respectively, in breeding female sheep populations.

Sheep population figures for June 2023
Sheep population figures for June 2023

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.

Next year’s market outlook will explore predictions for 2024 in greater detail.

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