The National Sheep Association (NSA) has urged retailers in the UK to work harder to create stronger trading relationships with domestic lamb suppliers, as they will be unable to continue relying so heavily on New Zealand imports in the future.
Figures released this week show the 2013 New Zealand lamb crop is the second smallest in nearly 60 years, with 1.3 million (4.7%) fewer lambs in the system than 2012.
This comes at a time when New Zealand is beginning to prioritise emerging export markets, such as China, over more traditional export markets in Europe, meaning it will become increasingly difficult for UK supermarkets to undercut domestically produced lamb with cheap New Zealand cuts.
Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive, said: “Supermarkets here in the UK are going to see increasing volatility in the years to come as a result of changing weather patterns impacting global supply (as seen this year in New Zealand) and international demand for lamb increasing.
“As for New Zealand, there are increasing opportunities for UK lamb to be exported to developing markets, and so retailers will have to do more to secure domestic supplies.
“The answer is greater connection between our UK producers and the domestic market, which can only be achieved by supermarkets paying more consistent prices and ensuring they stock UK lamb throughout the year.
“The practice of turning away from UK lamb in the New Year due to an assumption that it suddenly becomes ‘old season’ or ‘hogget’ cannot be justified.
“Lambs are regularly born from January through to May so to say they all become old season after one date is simply not right.
“With our major supermarkets talking publicly about shortening supply chains and supporting UK producers, in the interest of the entire supply chain including consumers, this wake-up call from NZ might finally result in some action.”
New Zealand breeding ewe numbers have been under pressure for several years as a result of a rapidly expanding dairy sector.
NSA saw this first-hand, along with the appetite of Kiwi exporters to meet growing Chinese demand for lamb, when Mr Stocker took part in an Eblex-organised trip to New Zealand in August 2013.
The impact of the 2013 drought was not fully known then, but has revealed itself in the Beef and Lamb New Zealand Lamb Crop 2013 report published last week.
The figures show that a culmination of breeding ewes conceiving fewer lambs (down 3.8% at 1.208 per head compared to 1.246 in 2012) and fewer ewe lambs being put to the tup (down 17% cent with only 1.13m lambs born from ewe lambs) caused the 4.7% drop in total numbers.
Beef and Lamb Zealand says the smaller lamb crop will impact on export processing numbers, which are expected to drop 6.8% to 19.5 million head, making 2013-14 the third lowest export lamb total since 1960.
Mr Stocker continued: “To put the figures into context, 1.3 million fewer lambs in New Zealand is roughly 23,500 tonnes of lamb product.
“New Zealand exported nearly 63,000 tonnes of sheepmeat to the UK in 2012, so that means more than 35% of that tonnage just will not be available for New Zealand to export in 2014.
“This is a very over-simplified interpretation of the numbers, but at a time when the increasing wealth in China is providing demand for premium New Zealand lamb cuts, it is clear large volumes of cheap New Zealand product will no longer be available to UK retailers in the future.
“Maybe now they will realise the importance and high quality of the lamb available on their doorsteps.”