A tale of two lambs

I went deliberately to Waitrose yesterday in search of some English lamb mince – what I thought would be straightforwards turned out not to be so. No English lamb at all of any sort was to be found, instead the shelves were full of New Zealand lamb …… This led me to investigate why this might be.


It is quite complicated! Firstly as a nation we don’t eat that much lamb and mutton – apparently about 5kg per person per year – see here, and we are basically self sufficient in lamb. Defra told us that the national sheep flock in 2015 was estimated to be around 23.1 million animals – see here and Monbiot calculated that sheep occupy around 4 million ha. of land – the majority in the uplands – see here.

So if we are self sufficient in lamb why do we import lamb from New Zealand?

Firstly UK sheep farmers export around the same amount of lamb / sheep products as the UK imports (which mostly comes from NZ). So if we didn’t import lamb there wouldn’t be the supply to meet the demand.

Secondly lamb is a seasonal product, the UK is in the northern hemisphere whilst of course NZ is in the southern hemisphere. As a result their seasons are complimentary. UK lamb is mainly available from June – December, whilst NZ lamb is in season from December to early June.

Thirdly, as a nation we are rather fussy about what cuts of lamb we like to eat, we tend to prefer legs and chops, as the result of this the rest of the meat cuts and products are exported to countries abroad where ‘lesser’ quality cuts are eaten. In addition much more lamb is eaten that mutton in the UK.

Fourthly, is the issue of currency rates. When Sterling is strong then lamb is uncompetitive on the continent and UK exports drop. However when Sterling is strong, this is the time when NZ wants to export lamb to Britain as they get good prices for their products, leading to a potential conflict with UK farmers – see here for an example from Wales.

Conversely when Sterling is weak (as now) lamb becomes competitive on the continent and exports rise, but imports from NZ drop.

Lamb is a favourite Easter food and of course at this time UK lambs are still growing on the hills and in the fields so the lamb that is available is from NZ and this has led to people asking why UK supermarkets don’t stock UK lamb – see here.

Interesting! But there is more …..

Sheep and lamb 1

People often complain that lamb is very expensive and why should this be the case? Well a comparison with pigs and pork explains quite a lot. The average sow produces  8 piglets on a four month cycle and each piglet after 5 months will weigh 250lbs and can go to market. Pigs can be kept in a pen measuring 30 x 30 feet. By comparison a ewe can produce 1 – 2 lambs per annum and needs 0.75 acres per animal.

Finally, look how this might change after Brexit – the pound is now very low compared to where it was 7 months ago so conditions are ideal for UK farmers to export to the Continent and elsewhere – both markets come courtesy of the EU Single Market.

If negotiations to secure exporting access to foreign markets takes many years then UK farmers won’t be able to export.

The strategy for sheep farming may then have to change – one option might be, especially in the lowlands, to produce lambs which are less seasonal. For example Dorset Breed sheep can produce lambs throughout the year so an increase in this breed might allow lamb to become available all year round.

Difficult times ahead.



One thought on “A tale of two lambs

  1. Thanks Adrian . I am sure that NZ lamb should come here from December , after hill lamb sales , to April when early lambing flocks like Hampshire and Dorset Down that can start lambing in January and Polled and horned Dorset horn ewes start earlier. If the traditional suckler cows could be outwintered again the large barns that have to be filled with silage and mucked out could be freed to lamb and rear 3 month old fat lamb ready for the French/ English Easter market. The trade off to have NZ lambs over that period is worth having but any NZ lamb sold after that date should have a tarifbput on it.
    The taste of lamb has rather deserted us but lamb is known to be very different with Dorset horn or polled giving a sweeter taste as does the Dartmoor white face. Hampshire down lamb chops from the Queens Hampshire flock inWindsor is some of the best I have tasted.
    If you live in New Zealand everyone buys hogget , that is 12 to 18 months. All the butchers sell half or full hogget. They are of course cheaper. It would be worth having a deep freeze for half a hogget here as they are arguably better eating and cheaper.
    In the Autumn a lot of lamb used to go to Italy where they want a smaller joint. Ideally live exports to an Italian farm where they can be grazed near the butchers premises used to be preferred on the continent. The lambs travel well on modern lorries and drivers of the Gilders lorries will tell you it’s rare to lose a lamb. Sheep are a desert breed like rabbits and although they are unloaded every 8 hours they go to eat hay first rather than drink water!
    If the meat eating families in this country could be persuaded like muslims to enjoy hogget and mutton then Upland farmers could leave male hoggets on the hill grazing to thrive on molinia. Whilst ewes seem to know that they need more protein to produce milk for their lambs whether hoggets are not so fussy!
    In 1900s the records of a sheep walk near Plynlimon show that sheep were taken to Anglesey to be sold. The high proportion would be 3/4 yr old wether hogget that probably ended up in the Inns of Court dinners as well matured and hung wether hogget, a delicacy!
    A new delicacy well marketed by BBC ex producer Rebecca Hoskin at East Portlemouth are at aVillage Farm , East Portlemouth near Salcombe. Their flock is very interesting and is composed of the old English and Scottish traditional breeds of Manx, Hebridean, Soay sheep that were never crossed with the fat sheep of Thomas Coke of Holkham who introduced the English Leicester. Marketing is Rebecca’s strong suit and her knowledge of breeding and holistic grazing is fascinating. Mob grazing of up to 1000 cross bred sheep on 300 acres meant the opportunity of not only not returning to the same grazing for 12 weeks to avoid the worm cycle but holistically to avoid lambing or grazing in seeding areas of orchids or nesting areas of waders and other ground nesting birds !
    However Rebecca and her BBC partner are expert marketers and have found top hotels and restaurants that have appreciated the near gamey taste of the well fleshed lamb that has little fat. This may well be more of a selling point than the previous fat covered but delicious white faced Dartmoor from Widecombe!
    With such a wide and varied market British farmers have the option of many different markets. To pick the best financially rewarding market is still a great skill. Fairfax

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