I do after all have a lot to reflect on. I have had a long and happy career in agriculture and agricultural education and I still really enjoy what I do, not least my sheep. They are only a small flock now, but quite enough to manage alongside my other commitments. But, I would hope they are a good flock.
I have never followed fashion in anything and certainly not with my sheep. My Lleyn flock is – or I like to think so – made up of good traditional sheep. That is not to say that they haven’t changed over the 26 years that I have been keeping them. If I look back at pictures of my original stock my current flock are better fleshed, certainly have better wool, are probably marginally less prolific (I don’t get many sets of quads now) but still manage around 200% year on year. Nevertheless, they are still the pretty, medium sized sheep that I started with.
I certainly have a number of ram buyers who keep coming back, so I must be doing something right. Anyway I enjoy them and, if anything, with a smaller flock I enjoy them more than I did previously, and part of that is having a little more time to get to know them all as individuals. But I do think that part of it is also that my sheep have all got to know me much better.
They do appear to be more relaxed, even today with a Rural Payments Agency inspection and in the pouring rain they were remarkably calm and laid back when they were brought in to have their tags checked, regardless of the fact that there was a stranger present. They do always seem to become remarkably benign during pregnancy, particularly early pregnancy. Then for a good month they are just allowed to get on with things, with no handling or treatment, unless urgently required, until embryos are successfully implanted and the pregnancies are safe.
Anyway, to come back to my original point about reflective thought, as we enter the closing month of the year it is a good time to look back over what the last 12 months have brought us. The past year has been a mixed one with some real ups and downs in both the weather and with sheep prices.
For the former, the year really did not get off to a good start: a horribly wet winter gave rise to a wet and colder than average early spring. Grass supplies were tight for quite some time and ewes did begin to suffer as they struggled with their new lambs. But then the weather changed. A lovely warm and dry late spring really did begin to turn sheep around and just as the dry weather began to threaten grass supplies again, it rained.
A wettish and warm summer produced plenty of grass and ewes soon bounced back after weaning, generally going to the tup in better condition than they had done for several years. It may be getting a bit soggy now and the forecast is for a wet tail end of the year, but it has remained remarkably warm. My ewes certainly have plenty of grass in front of them and more than enough to carry them into the new year when we are forecast some cold dry weather. So things are looking quite rosy.
Price wise, things seem to have been just as mixed. The wet spring and tight grass supplies resulted in prices for the first part of the year being significantly above where they had been at the start of 2013. But then from May onwards prices began to tumble as more lambs came forward, particularly when some producers began to offload lambs as grass supplies began to tighten. This was exacerbated by the impact of a strong sterling on export demand.
But now prices have started to firm as we move towards the close of the year and sterling is weakening against the euro (1.25 euros to the pound today, compared with 1.28 in the middle of the summer), improving the prospects for exports. Market prospects are good with a growing global demand for red meat and new export markets being explored. Confidence is high, as demonstrated by the buoyant breeding ewe and store lamb trade over the autumn.
There are some very good reasons for optimism going into 2015, but just a word of caution. A growing reliance on the global market will probably lead to greater price volatility. The wise sheep producers will, going forward, consider how they may need to adjust production systems to provide a buffer against potentially wide swings in market prices. Have a lovely Christmas and prosperous new year.