NFU Comment: Acam Scott on why summer is a great time to enjoy British lamb

Adam Scott, NFU county advisr for Essex.

Adam Scott, NFU county advisr for Essex. - Credit: Archant

Last weekend’s summer solstice heralded the start of summer and also the start of the lamb “peak season” – the time when British lamb is in plentiful supply.

But for sheep farmers in Suffolk and Essex this year’s market is as uncertain as the British weather, with factors both near and far influencing the price they receive, writes Adam Scott.

While pigs farrow and cattle calve all year round the breeding cycle for sheep is still closely influenced by day length, with the vast majority of ewes lambing in early spring.

Weather conditions were favourable last autumn, when the rams went to the ewes, leading to good conception rates and overall a good lambing season in 2015. While this spring has been cool and dry the lambs have grown well and UK supply is expected to be the highest since 2009, with lamb numbers 4% up on last year.

Selling the lambs has not, however, been so straightforward. Early lambs can catch the premium Easter market but this year the good prices normally achieved early in the year were deflated by a combination of older lambs carried over from 2014 and a sharp increase in imports.

Severe drought conditions in New Zealand in their summer resulted in many lambs being finished early and exported to the UK. Sheep meat imports from New Zealand increased by 24% in the first three months of 2015 compared to a year ago.

The UK market was a key destination, partly due to the strong pound and also because the market in China, which has been taking much Southern Hemisphere product, fell by 12%.

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While the strong pound has encouraged imports, the weak euro has made exporting much harder.

The pound has strengthened against the euro by 15% since January 2014.The UK is the largest producer of lamb in Europe and we usually export around 40% of the meat produced, half of which goes to France.

Indeed one in four of the lambs eaten in France has come from our green and pleasant land. But higher prices are reducing French consumption and our exports have fallen 9% as a result.

This all leaves us with ample supply of fresh, tender and delicious new season, quality lamb for both UK consumers and the opportunity to build new markets with consumers in Europe. The levy body for the sheep sector, AHDB Beef and Lamb, has just launched a new EU wide campaign to increase lamb consumption under the banner “Lamb: tasty, easy, fun” and is working to promote lamb in six key target EU countries.

At home the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has been meeting with retailers to ensure that home-produced lamb is not mixed with imported meat in a way that will confuse consumers who wish to buy British.

We’re asking the public to look for the Red Tractor logo to ensure the lamb they buy was born and reared on a British farm.

There are also moves to develop new cuts to improve the overall demand for the whole carcass. Working with the food supply chain to develop innovation and drive consumption will help us combat currency trends that are beyond our control.

One area where eating habits are evolving is our continued love affair with curries. Last year there was an increase of nearly 22% in the number of people eating lamb curry, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

Sheep farming is at the heart of many of our iconic landscapes so if you’re rustling up a lamb rogan josh, ordering a takeaway or eating out, do ask for British lamb to benefit both the countryside and your curry.

Adam Scott is the NFU’s county adviser for Essex. For more information about British lamb, visit the NFU website at http://bit.ly/1eCQVt3 .