FARMERS are receiving almost £30 less per lamb than a year ago, while struggling with late 2012 lambs that are in many cases being sold at less than the cost of production.
They are also facing competition on the supermarket shelves from a larger than usual consignment of New Zealand lamb, while export opportunities for domestic lamb have decreased.
It is, says Northumberland farmer Simon Bainbridge, a “perfect storm” of circumstances that are hitting the industry hard.
Mr Bainbridge, whose Donkin Rigg Farm near Morpeth is now in its final six months as the county’s monitor farm, said: “We’ve obviously had a very difficult year as a result of the weather.
“It’s been compounded by a difficult season. The lambs just didn’t perform on the wet grass.
“From November, December, January, we had to start feeding them when, suddenly, the prices started to drop – probably because of the worldwide price of lambs.
“The supermarkets have brought in 30% more lamb from New Zealand this time. Our lambs, because of the poor weather, have been finished two to three months later so they are coming on to the market at the same time.
“It is a combination of circumstances. The big one is the big increases in lamb coming into the UK. It’s caused an over-supply at a critical time of year – there has been a third more [from New Zealand]. I would think it is down to the price.”
The National Sheep Association (NSA) is urging shoppers to complain to supermarkets if there is no UK-produced lamb on the shelves.
It says some of the multiples have been explaining away the high proportion of New Zealand lamb for sale by telling consumers that British lamb is “out of season”, something it said it was a “bitter blow” for hard-pressed farmers.
The NSA also pointed out that the price of domestically produced lamb has not fallen in the shops, despite the big price cut faced by farmers.
Richard Potts, NFU county advisor for Northumberland, said: “In this country, our purchase of lamb has been quite strong. It hasn’t declined like it has in Europe.
“Exporting the lambs has not been easy, because there has been an increasing amount coming on to the market from Australia and New Zealand as well.”
Simon Bainbridge also pointed out problems with the traditionally lucrative French market. “A big percentage of our lambs go to the French and this financial crunch just seems to have hit the lamb buyers in France,” he said.
“The exporters in the UK are very worried about being paid by those continental buyers.
“It’s really bad timing for the British farmers, having had this bad weather and wet feed. On the back of that, all the input prices are going up. The feed is at an all-time high and fuel prices are going up. It’s been a really bad year.
“In 2013, we’ve got to get through the lambs that are left from 2012 then we’ve just got to hope this next year’s crop of lambs is better.
“It’s been a perfect storm of all these factors that have hit at this time of year.”
Richard Potts said the NFU is contacting Defra ministers to point out the problems that upland farmers are being faced with. He said: “Farmers try to be as upbeat as they can. But they have really been feeling it with the way prices have been. Some are finding it tough.”
The NFU worked out the figure that farmers were losing is around £29 on every lamb when they were sold. Mr Bainbridge’s own rough calculations show just how much extra farmers have had to put into these later 2012 lambs.
“I was working out the feed prices. We are organic and we produce all our own feed,” he said. “It works out at 36p per lamb per day and that’s not taking straw etc into account, just feed. We have 400-500 in the shed.
“If they are in there for 100 days that’s £36 per lamb. We’ve drawn 150 lambs to go and we haven’t got a price for them. Say, if they make £50 to £60, as soon as you take the £36 off and then there’s the other costs. It just doesn’t stack up.”
North East sheep producers are also preparing to start lambing in the shadow of Schmallenberg, the virus which causes late abortion and birth defects.
“It has been a bit of an issue across the entire country and some people have been badly affected,” said Richard Potts. “Farmers are quite rightly concerned about it.”
Simon Bainbridge said: “We are going to have to muddle along and hope, going forward, that Schmallenberg doesn’t affect us too much. We need a bit of luck and we need a dry year – a few dry years.”
Exporting lambs has not been easy, because there has been an increasing amount coming on to the market from Australia and New Zealand