Butchers warn a leg of lamb could rocket to £50
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Lamb is being taken off the hook at one of Suffolk’s premier family butcher’s as prices rocket.
Ipswich butcher George Debman says the cost of lamb has continued to climb, leading to the startling prospect of a £50 price tag for a single leg of lamb.
In November of last year, sheep farmers faced sleepless nights as the future of UK lamb hung in the balance.
Without a Brexit deal, the UK sheep sector — heavily reliant on European Union (EU) exports — would have been faced with huge trade barriers and swingeing tariffs. When a last-minute deal was struck, it saved the industry.
It has meant that while Brexit red tape at the border has become a big headache, trade has continued — and demand has only increased.
But while sheep farmers are sleeping more soundly, Mr Debman has been counting the cost of a classic “supply and demand” trade-off.
Amid fears of a no-deal Brexit last year and high demand, UK sheep producers killed lambs early and adopted a cautious approach to this season, leading to a lamb shortage.
Now prices have risen so high that Mr Debman can’t countenance that his customers will stump up.
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Mr Debman is a regular at the weekly Colchester livestock market but he will no longer be buying lamb — unless prices settle down.
Livestock auctioneers Stanfords described this week’s lamb trade as “ballistic” as bids climbed to a high of £185 for a single live animal amid a shortage of supply.
“Since Christmas the price of lamb has just gone up and up and up and up,” said Mr Debman.
“I was speaking to a farmer and he expects it to go even higher. As a retail business I have taken a decision that we are going to take lamb off the shelf because I can’t see a member of the public paying £50 for a leg of lamb.”
In the run-up to Brexit he was paying around £110/£115 for a lamb with the exception of the Christmas fatstock market when prices are at a premium, he explained.
Last week, he bought a lamb at £145. This week, the same-sized animal would have put him back £185, he said.
“I was speaking to a wholesaler and they had paid over £200 for a hogget (or old season lamb).
“In one way it’s good but in another way it’s not good because there might come a time when people say: ‘I’m not paying that.’ In my opinion it’s unsustainable.”
At the same time, he has heard of supermarket lamb being sold at well below market price - possibly as a loss-leader.
“As a business we have kept our prices the same purely because of all that’s been going on in the country. We have been doing legs of lamb at £10.99/kg. I have been able to do that because I have been buying well. I have always bought the bigger lambs because they cover the killing costs I have to pay.
“With prices now we would have to be looking at £17.50/kg,” he said.
Customers tended to just want certain cuts — a leg of lamb or chops — making it even more difficult to stack up financially, he explained. He’ll fulfil the orders he has but will now focus on pushing beef and pork. This is despite the fact that demand for lamb continued to be high.
“Since Covid hit last year the amount of lamb we have sold has been frightening,” he admitted. “But it’s now got to the stage where the price of the lamb I’m simply not paying it. In my 30 years running the business I have never seen anything like it,” he said.
“Beef prices have firmed up but I have no problem with that because beef has been cheap for an awful long time. I have been buying pork for £2/kg which is crazy money.”
He was getting live beef at £2.35 to £2.40/kg which would translate at around £4/kg on the hook, he added.
Graham Ellis, auctioneer at Stanfords, said a lot of people had gone back to buying fresh meat in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Lamb was seen as a very natural product, and this had created unprecedented demand, he added.
In the run of to Brexit “there was a big panic and a lot of lambs were slaughtered early so there’s a shortage of lamb,” he said.
This is despite the fact that restaurants and hospitality venues remained closed, he added, so it was unclear yet what impact that might have — positive or negative — on demand as householders start to eat out again and barbecues come into season with the warmer weather. A trend towards buying British produce was helping prices, he added.
“I have to say they are the dearest I have ever known — they are at unprecedented levels. I never anticipated lambs going as dear as this.” Butchers he had spoken to sold out of lamb over Easter, but anything in farming is speculative, he said.
Meanwhile, pig farmers are in “serious trouble” as pork prices tumble. Beef was at as good a price as it had been recently, he said. “The pig boys are desperate — the sheep boys are in fairyland.”