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 …..
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.