The results of the 2020 Annual Sheep and Goat Census have been published and show the number of breeding ewes aged two years and over on farms on 31 December 2020 increasing by 72,000 when compared to 31 December 2019.
The marginal increase to 2.64m head, as reflected in Figure 4, reflects higher levels of confidence and confirms anecdotal reports in the second half of 2020, pointing to occasional flock expansion and some new blood entering the sector.
The latter point is also confirmed in the report, with the Department of Agriculture approving 1,500 farms as registered sheep holdings throughout 2020, while also reactivating the status of another 500 producers whose registration status had lapsed due to not possessing sheep for a period of over 12 months.
Registered sheep holdings
These new or reactivated registrations did not follow through to a 2,000 increase in the number of sheep farms as it is the norm each year for flocks to exit the sector or for some registered holdings to indicate that they do not intend to re-enter sheep farming in the near future.
The overall figure stands at 35,592 registered premises where sheep were kept (up 2% or 654 premises on 2019), a further 6,233 registered holdings which did not possess sheep at the time of the census and 700 respondents without sheep who indicated they did not wish to return to sheep farming in the near future.
Total sheep numbers
The total number of sheep on farms on 31 December 2020 was recorded at 3.88m head, which is an increase of 69,000 head or 2% on 2019 levels.
As mentioned already, there was a greater increase in breeding ewe numbers with a reduction in the category of other sheep which includes lambs under one year of age, rams, ewes, etc, limiting the increase in total sheep numbers.
The lower carryover of lambs was a feature of higher lamb throughput in 2020. This fed into tighter supplies in spring 2021 with hogget throughput falling by over 60,000 head when compared to the corresponding period in 2020.
Donegal remains top
Donegal remains the county with by far the largest sheep flock in the country and has once again recorded the greatest growth in numbers.
As reflected in Figure 1, the number of breeding ewes aged in excess of two years of age increased by 12,420 head to reach 366,478.
Mayo remains in second position with a flock of 317,634 head and it also recorded the second highest increase in the last 12 months with numbers increasing by 7,565 head.
Galway is positioned next with a flock of 283,588 head (+5,637 head in 2020), while the only other county exceeding the 200,000 head mark is Kerry with 248508 (+5,483) head. These four counties combined account for some 46% of the total national flock.
There are another five counties with in excess of 100,000 ewes – Wicklow, Roscommon, Cork, Sligo and Meath. With the exception of Roscommon, these counties all recorded a significant increase in ewe numbers, averaging 3,356 head higher.
There was also a similar increase in breeding ewe numbers recorded in Kildare, Cavan and Wexford. In contrast, there were three counties recording contraction in their ewe flocks in 2020.
Kilkenny’s 43,367 head flock reduced by 1,630 head while Dublin, which possesses the country’s second smallest flock of 17,919 head, recorded a reduction of 231 ewes. Westmeath, meanwhile, recorded a marginal reduction of 61 ewes to 55,047 head.
The counties with the largest ewe flocks all have one thing in common. They have substantial mountain/mountain cross ewe numbers and, similarly, they also have significant lowland flocks as reflected in Figure 2.
The data in Figure 2 is not absolute and is liable to changes from year to year. This is due to the fact that some breeds can either be classified as mountain cross or lowland cross and this gives rise to some variation.
It does, however, provide a good benchmark of the type of ewes present on farm and their dominance in different regions.
The national flock is split roughly 50:50 with mountain/mountain cross ewes (1,300,382) and lowland/lowland cross ewes (1,134,162).
Within the mountain/mountain cross category there are 837,809 head or 31.7% of the national flock categorised as mountain ewes and 462,573 mountain/mountain cross ewes (17.5%).
Within the lowland/lowland cross category, ewes classified as lowland cross dominate at 840,035 head, or 31.8% of the national flock, which is not surprising given the high prevalence of crossbreeding. This leaves 502,127 lowland ewes or 19% of the national ewe breed.
Mountain/mountain cross ewes dominate ewe type in Donegal and Mayo and comprise in excess of 220,000 head of ewes in each county. The greatest number of lowland (74,588) and lowland cross (107,921) ewe breeds were recorded in Galway.
As expected, Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry also have the largest number of sheep flocks.
Donegal has 6,121 registered sheep flocks with this figure increasing by 89 flocks on 2019 levels. Mayo has 4,939 flocks and recorded the largest increase in flock numbers of 97 new flocks. Galway also has in excess of 4,000 flocks at 4,109 flocks, an increase of 52 flocks on 2019 levels. Kerry is the only county possessing between 2,000 and 3,000 flocks with flock numbers recorded at 2,493 flocks.
The flock size in these counties is similar to the national average flock number, which remains unchanged at 109 head. This figure is for the total number of sheep in flocks on 31 December 2019 rather than the number of breeding ewes. As can be seen in Figure 5, the national flock is dominated by small flocks with 40.8% of flocks recording 50 sheep or fewer in the flock with another 25% with between 51 and 100 sheep.
There is a wide variance between flock size in counties in the west and north west and counties in the east and southeast.
Wicklow recorded the largest average flock size of 183 sheep and replaced Waterford as possessing the largest flock size with the average flock size falling by 18 head to 171 head.
Kildare (163 sheep) and Louth (161 sheep) remain similar, while Meath (156 head) and Carlow (152 head) possess an average flock size of greater than 150 head.
2020 sheep census forms were issued to 6,332 sheep keepers registered with the Department.
A response rate of 90% was achieved, which is broadly in line with recent years. Within this, 39% – or approximately 14,000 returns – were submitted via the Department’s agfood.ie facility.
In excess of 12,000 of these were completed directly through a farmer’s own login with the remainder completed by authorised agents on a keeper’s behalf.
The online system continues to gain greater traction with the census report citing the immediate confirmation of the census submission and the ability to view previous year’s returns as finding favour with farmers.
There is also a facility to order and view dispatch documents via the online facility.