Sheep industry chiefs say the export market offers great opportunities for hard-pressed farmers but new ways have to be found to encourage British shoppers to buy lamb.
The national sheep flock has shrunk by 29 per cent in 20 years because farmers have earned less money for their animals, environmental controls have increased and competition for land from other activities has grown, experts say in a new report published this week.
The global flock has declined by a relatively low ten per cent in the same period but the UK remains a major player in the global sheep meat market and continues to lead the EU in both sheep numbers and production, the report says.
Yorkshire has the largest flock of any single county, according to Defra’s statistics. The region is home to more than 1.9 million sheep - 14 per cent of the English flock.
The export market for British sheep meat is buoyant, with the quantity sold overseas in 2012 some 19 per cent higher than in 1990, making the UK a net exporter of sheep meat for the first time since the mid-1990s, but the report, produced by the National Sheep Association (NSA) and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), warns that flagging consumption at home is a key priority.
“We must find ways to increase home consumption of lamb, demonstrating the value of home produced lamb to the UK consumer while delivering on both price and eating quality.
“Due to the cost of production of UK lamb it is essential we invest in processing techniques to allow retailers to market products at an acceptable price point and that the consumer continues to appreciate lamb as a tasty, tender, and nutritious choice.”
Domestic consumption of lamb has decreased by nearly two-thirds in the two decades from 1990, falling from 7.5kg per person to 1.9kg.
The price per kg of lamb has more than doubled in the same time, a rise that has been out of pace with other meats, so that UK customers see lamb as an expensive choice.
The farming groups blame “a huge amount of misinformation” that has circulated in recent years for contributing to the decline of British lamb sales. Red meat has been associated with cancer, heart disease and obesity, and has been targeted by the environmental lobby who promote less or no meat diets as a way to reduce climate change.
Phil Stocker, the NSA’s chief executive, challenged the industry to press home the qualities of homebred lamb.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “British lamb already has the reputation among discerning consumers of being a high value and premium product, but we have so many more opportunities to communicate the nutritional benefits of this grass fed meat, with its high levels of anti-oxidants, essential oils, and elements such as iron and zinc.
“We also have a long way to go to promote the indivisible link between sheep farming and our green and accessible countryside, and the wildlife and vegetation that are reliant on sheep farming for their survival. Sheep farming is as close a way of truly natural food production, with a domestic animal that is kept in high welfare conditions, as you can find.”
At the launch of the report this week, Charles Sercombe, the NFU’s livestock board chairman, said the sheep industry would benefit from long-term partnerships across the supply chain to identify and clearly communicate customer requirements.