I reckon that somewhere there is a department of government that is messing with the day length, I am sure that the days are nowhere near as long as they used to be, New Year seems like just a few weeks away but we are already almost one and a half months into 2020. What a start to the year as far as the sheep trade is concerned, trade for finished and store lambs and culls, has been really positive since the turn of the year. With good meaty types of lambs today (11th February) making £2.50+kg in Ashford and good stores making £85.00 to £90.00, trade is just where it should be; it certainly demonstrates a significant level of confidence within the trade. Confidence which, for a range of reasons including, tight supplies, a good export trade, high New Zealand lamb prices, etc. is fully justified.

As usual some producers still seem to think that prices are too low, but in reality they are about where they need to be, most producers are happy and the meat trade is not making too much fuss, I suspect that we are at a reasonably good balance point. Any further increase in prices and the trade will almost certainly start to back away; everyone in the marketing chain does need to make their little bit of a margin for the system to work effectively, you may not agree with the distribution of those margins, but that’s life. Any significant increase in the retail price for lamb, at a time when some consumers are vacillating, could lead to a substantial erosion of consumer demand and those producers that are doing the job right should be able to make a decent margin at current market prices. What we need to remember is that there are no individual producers in a position to have any significant impact on market prices, if as an industry we were a bit better at working together, things might be different, but the agricultural sector as a whole has a long and inglorious history of failed marketing co-operatives, generally collapsing as a result of poor producer loyalty.

In addition, there is currently a lot of pressure for consumers to reduce their meat consumption, red meat in particular arising largely as a result of somewhat biased and often grossly misinformed media attention. Personally I really cannot understand why so much media attention is directed in support of a very small minority, you can’t open the weekend supplement of many newspapers without it being full of vegetarian or vegan recipes. In reality vegans only account for around 1% of the population (a fairly static figure) only marginally more than the proportion of the population that declare their religion to be Jedi. Even in this there are some positives, for example the vegetarian population of the UK is somewhat transient with, in the region of 75%, reverting to more traditional eating habits within a year and so called “flexitarians” may like to align with vegetarians just to be “on trend” but, in reality, are still meat eaters, just maybe not quite so much meat. Conversely and rather more concerning, there has been substantial growth in the number of climate change activists, many of them young and very committed, who potentially, could have a much greater negative impact. Once again misleading, biased and sometimes simply dishonest media coverage skew the views and opinions of many, buoyed by propaganda from the non meat eating community, urging the giving up of meat, “to save the planet”, honest science seems to have been well and truly relegated to the back seat.

As an industry, we do need to grasp, very firmly, any opportunity that may arise to counter this imbalance, both in terms of promoting the value of red meat as part of a healthy and balanced diet and the potential for carbon sequestration arising from sustainable sheep production. The misinformation disseminated with regards to CO2 emissions from well-managed grass fed livestock and “Global Warming” is, I believe, potentially more damaging to the sheep sector than the threat from those that simply choose not to eat meat.

The weather has not been good to us, in fact it has been fairly awful, sheep have barely had a dry back for months, soils are water logged and just when one begins to think that things are drying out a bit, another wet spell rolls in and we’re back to square one. One of the much under appreciated functions of livestock markets is the social function, the opportunity for producers to get together and share problems. We lost a couple of ewe lambs with acute fluke and we, ordinarily, simply do not have a fluke problem and then you talk to other producers and discover that quite a few have lost lambs over the winter, some quite significant numbers, from various weather related issues. I certainly don’t wish lamb losses on any producer, but simply appreciating that there are other producers in the same position does help make problems a little easier to tolerate. The constant wet has had a debilitating effect on many sheep, young-stock in particular. I imagine that a substantial proportion of the stores currently being presented at market were, originally, intended for the finished lamb market but the wet winter has had a negative impact on growth and performance.

At least there is a decent bit of grass growing now, even the clover has started to move, a good indicator that soil temperatures have not really decreased significantly all winter; it is quite noticeable after a few dryer, sunny days how the grass suddenly perks up. It is somewhat reassuring to have a nice bit of grass to lamb onto. All we need now is some decent weather for lambing, I’m sure the ewes will cope, they don’t seem to be too bothered, whatever the weather throws at them as long as they have some feed in front of them, a surprisingly tough sheep the Lleyn, but it is so much harder work and messier lambing outdoors in wet weather. A bit of sunshine makes everyone feel so much better, sheep and shepherd alike. I wish all sheep producers the very best of luck with lambing.

Just as a footnote, a point to watch is the developing Coronavirus situation in China, which will no doubt have a significant and negative impact on the Chinese economy, this in turn will almost certainly send economic ripples around the globe, quite what the effect will be on the wider global economy is uncertain, but it will have an impact.