Writing while touching wood in the hope that we don’t get the kind of appalling weather that caused thousands of ewe and lamb deaths at the end of March last year, weather this March has been generally favourable for lambing.
That is, dry, with rainfall in the month almost ended surely close to a record low and, if cold at times, mainly without the scouring gales that can make March a misery no matter what you’re doing outside, but particularly a misery in lambing field or shed.
As always, farmers and shepherds are cagey about the success or otherwise of lambing. Few, except those known for talking a good game, tempt fate by saying they’re having a good one. “Not bad” and “Average” are as close as it gets to enthusiasm when no matter how well things have gone so far, no one knows what might happen tomorrow – as we found out on the last two days of March last year.
Even present extremely high prices at over £2 a kilo – a top of £2.22 at St Boswells last week – for lambs born last spring are being treated with caution. Market analysts point out that the high prices are due to fewer lambs – technically hoggets – than usual being sold at this time of year, partly because of losses last spring, and partly because of a sharp drop in the tonnage of imported lamb. That, in turn, is largely due to a decline in sheep numbers in the main exporting countries, notably New Zealand.
A late Easter this year – almost as late as this moveable feast can be, coming as it does near the end of April – might also be having an effect because if Christmas means turkey on the table, Easter for many cooks still means new-season lamb for lunch or dinner.
We might not be as Christian a country as we once were, as the 2011 census form we’ve all filled in recently will no doubt confirm, but Christian festivals still dominate a remarkable range of our activities. One of the lesser-known side-effects is farmers deciding when some ewes should be mated during the preceding autumn to produce lambs to meet the high-price Easter market – not necessarily easy when that festival date can vary by almost five weeks for reasons that some of us, while understanding the calculations, don’t understand the logic.
On the other hand, as the date for Easter is calculated several hundred years in advance, it is possible to plan annual sheep breeding for those who aim for that market. The point being made about this year and a late Easter is that hoggets are making higher prices than in a year with an early Easter partly because early lambs are not yet being sold.
Which all sounds good news for sheep farmers already feeling moderately cheerful after reasonable returns in the past few months. The extent of that cheerfulness is more difficult to assess from the December census results – farming, not human – published recently.
These show that breeding ewe numbers in Scotland were down a further 64,000 or so at 2.6 million, the lowest figure for 30 years indicating pessimism; UK ewe numbers were also down, to 13.9 million. But in Scotland the number of ewe hoggs retained for breeding was up 20,000, indicating optimism. The drop in mature ewe numbers might have something to do with the fact that slaughter prices for these have also been at near record levels.
So there we have it for sheep: high prices at present, an indication that breeding numbers might increase, estimates of an “average” lowland lambing in reasonable conditions, some optimism about the hill lambing in April with most ewes reported to be in better condition than expected in spite of the worst winter for a generation, and imports down. What could possibly go wrong?
Other results from the December census in Scotland showed that the number of beef cows for breeding was up by about 6,000 to almost 457,000, and the number of breeding heifers – cows yet to have a calf – was up by 2,000 to 47,000. But the number of dairy cows fell a further 2,600 to a record low of 184,600. The number of breeding sows rose on the year by 5,600 to almost 39,000.
But, as ever, we are reminded that a census is a snapshot not a moving film. Since farmers completed their forms four months ago to give civil service statisticians the approximate estimates published last week, we’ve had that appalling winter and dramatic rises in the price of livestock necessities such as straw and feedstuffs.
Those increases might have changed minds about expansion. In the case of lamb at present prices, or the hoped-for even higher-price Easter market, the concern is that cash-strapped shoppers will think it too expensive.
As someone who thinks that there is little to beat good quality roast lamb as a meal I always try to argue that it is good value for money. Unfortunately for sheep farmers, not everyone agrees.