Results from the 2021 national sheep and goat census shows the number of breeding ewes on farms on 31 December 2021 increased by 55,348 head on 2020 levels to reach 2.7m.

The 2.1% increase follows on from a similar increase of 2.8% in the previous year, with the ewe flock growing by a combined total of 127,022 head in the last two years.

The number of sheep in the ‘other sheep’ category increased by a sizeable 8.1% on the previous 12 months.

The recorded figure of 1,240,619 head represents an increase of 92,876 and goes some way in explaining hogget throughput in 2022 running 179,390 head higher.

Meanwhile, the number of breeding rams on farms fell by 1% to 86,216 head. This comes after two years of significant growth in ram numbers, rising by 6.1% in the previous year.

County increases

Analysis of the census data shows Donegal remains well out in front in terms of the largest number of ewes, with a flock of 377,439 head. This represents an increase of 10,961 head on the year previous.

Mayo, the county with the second-highest ewe flock of 327,209 head, recorded an increase of 9,575 head, while ewe numbers in Galway, at 289,477 head, increased by 5,889.

Numbers in Kerry also increased by in excess of 5,000 head to reach 253,657.

Four counties recorded lower ewe numbers year on year. Carlow fell by 2,068 head to 70,983, while Wexford’s ewe flock of 86,850 head fell by 788.

Dairy conversions

Reports indicate the reduction in ewe numbers resulted from conversions to dairying, with a few high-profile flocks exiting sheep production in the last year.

Ewe numbers in Kildare fell by 469 head, with a marginal reduction of 45 head in Wicklow.

Limerick remains the county with the smallest sheep flock of 14,691 head, followed by Dublin (18,417) and Clare (19,417).

Census applications

The Department of Agriculture reports that census applications were returned by 42,014 flocks, representing a response rate of 89%.

Within this figure, 36,163 flocks had sheep, while 5,851 flocks had no sheep at the time of the census, with 700 of these indicating they did not intend to re-enter sheep farming in the future.

The number of holdings with sheep increased by 571 (1.6%) on 2020 levels. The average flock size was recorded at 111 head, an increase of two sheep on 2020 levels.

A total of 68% of flocks had 111 sheep or less on 31 December 2021.