Figures released by Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) shows there were 320,474 sheep exported from Northern Ireland in 2021 for direct slaughter in Ireland. This represents a reduction of 58,274 head, or a 15.4% fall, on 2020 levels.

Figure 1 details weekly exports across the last two years, and shows the shortfall in export volumes when compared to previous years was largely confined to the period from the end of January through to the end of July, with almost 55,000 fewer sheep exported south during this period.

This contributed significantly to reduced throughput in southern plants, with the 2021 hogget kill falling by almost 100,000 head, while ewe and ram throughput also fell by close to 20,000 head during this timeframe. In contrast, sheep throughput in Northern Ireland increased by 17,867 head for the first 30 weeks of 2021.

The number of sheep classified as breeding/store sheep and exported from Northern Ireland to farms in Ireland was recorded at 51,844 head and also fell by a lower level of 5%, or 2,772 head. Exports in the first half of the year were 6,471 head lower, while export numbers in the second half of 2021 were 3,699 head higher.

Higher exports to Britain

While live sheep exports for direct slaughter reduced significantly to Ireland, the number of sheep exported for direct slaughter to Britain at 32,157 head increased by 20,038 head, or 165%, on 2020 levels. Figure 2 shows the pattern of exports for the last two years and as can be readily seen, the trend is variable from week to week. This is largely the result of those in the trade taking a couple of weeks to gather consignments and also responding to market signals.

Reports indicate that cull ewes made up a significant percentage of the total number of sheep exported. This is also the case with sheep exported to farms for further feeding or breeding. The number of sheep exported live through this avenue was steady on recent years, with 50,636 head exported, representing a marginal decrease of 571 head on 2020 levels.

Export figures in the first quarter of 2021 were 11,642 head lower, but this shortfall was compensated for across the year with 3,848, 4,846 and 2,377 extra sheep exported in quarter two, three and four of 2021, respectively.

NI sheep throughput

The final sheep kill figures for 2021 have not yet been published, but the latest DAERA data available for the week ending 25 December 2021 shows sheep throughput of 453,970 head running 6,936 head lower. There was significant variation across different categories, with the hogget and lamb kill of 453,970 head falling by 3%, or 13,939 head, on the corresponding period in 2020.

In contrast, the ewe and ram kill of 30,328 head was 7,003 head, or 30%, higher.

Industry forecasts for the first quarter of 2022 raise the potential of sheep numbers tightening, with these predictions coming on the back of higher output levels in the second half of 2021.

The AHDB is, however, reporting that lamb numbers on farms in Northern Ireland were 3% higher on 1 June 2021. Throughput in the first half of 2022 will also be influenced by ewe lamb retention.