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UK Sheepmeat Market Cools as Brexit Uncertainty Continues

Stuart Ashworth

UK prime sheep prices have fallen by some 4% over the past month to currently stand some 14% lower than a year ago, according to the latest market analysis by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

Stuart Ashworth, QMS Director of Economics Services explained: “The level change on last year is partly influenced by the price movements at this time last year when prime sheep prices were rising steeply across Europe, something that has not occurred this year.”

Indeed, he reported that most European producers have also seen a reduction in prices over the past month, leading to prices lower than a year ago, although to a lesser extent than in the UK.

Irish prices have cooled 4% over the past month but are only marginally lower than a year ago. Prices in Spain and France are currently 4.5% and 3% lower than a year ago, while German producers are seeing prices 7% lower than this time last year.

The fall in prices across UK and Ireland has occurred while the number of prime sheep reaching abattoirs has fallen.

“The weekly lamb kill in the UK during January was 7% lower than last year and has continued to be lower into February,” said Mr Ashworth.

“Similarly, in Ireland since the turn of the year, abattoir throughputs have averaged 11% lower than last year with an even bigger decline in recent weeks.”

Slaughter rates for other European countries have seen the opposite, reported Mr Ashworth.

“In contrast to the UK and Ireland, France reported an increase in domestic slaughterings during December and January. Spain also reported an increase in sheep slaughterings during December,” he said.

Although increased supplies in France and Spain would encourage lower producer prices there, said Mr Ashworth, lower supplies and lower prices in the UK and Ireland would point towards sluggish demand for British and Irish sheepmeat, rather than oversupply.

“The increased domestic supplies in France contributed to France importing less sheepmeat than a year ago during December, and it is likely that French import demand has remained sluggish through January.

“France also reported lower sheepmeat consumption during December and for the whole of 2018.”

Latest analysis by Kantar Worldpanel shows that in the most recent month, UK sheepmeat consumption has been similar to the levels of a year ago, but there has been some increase in the average retail price. Despite lower production, lower levels of trade will result in plenty of lamb on the home market to sustain domestic demand volumes. However, as Easter falls three weeks later this year, demand will likely be pushed back to April this year compared to March last year.

New Zealand continues to send less sheepmeat than a year earlier into the UK and the EU. Although New Zealand’s lamb slaughterings have been running lower than a year ago, which has supported some year on year increase in their farmgate price.

However, Beef and Lamb New Zealand put some of the decline in exports to the UK and the EU down to poorer economic performance in the European market, and an increase in demand from the Chinese and US markets.

Mr Ashworth concluded that Brexit confusion is adding to the uncertainty in the market place.

At the time of writing importers and exporters have no clarity on the rules for exporting sheepmeat to Europe beyond the 29th of March.

 “In April 2018 around 27% of UK sheepmeat was exported to Europe,” said Mr Ashworth.

“Uncertainty over the terms of trade for this level of production will inevitable lead to extreme caution among sheep buyers.”