Across the five hill farms, higher prices and more lambs weaned improved gross margins. Gross margin/ewe averaged £57/head (€66) in 2020, up from £31 (€36).

Output rose to £96/ewe (€111), with variable costs down slightly to £39/ewe (€45).

Clement Lynch – Park, Co Derry

Clement runs a sheep-only unit on 54ha of improved upland grazing and 155ha of severely disadvantaged area (SDA) hill ground.

Gross margin (GM) increased from £40 (€46) in 2019 to £75/ewe (€87) in 2020. Ewe output rose from £99 (€115) to £137/ewe (€159) last year, with variable costs up marginally to £62/ewe (€72).

Ewe numbers are at capacity for the farm, as Clement is the single full-time labour unit. The majority of lambs were finished, with some sold as breeding replacements in 2020.

Meal feeding (ewe and lamb concentrate) decreased from 93kg/head in 2019 to 87kg/head last year.

Lamb carcase weight decreased from 23kg in 2019 to 21kg in 2020, meaning less free kilogrammes sold for slaughter. This is the result of more regular handling and weighing.

Dermot McCullagh – Slaughtneil, Co Derry

Dermot runs 280ha of SDA hill ground, which carried 560 breeding ewes last year, a slight increase on 2019 levels.

GM/ewe increased from £55/ewe (64) in 2019 to £110/ewe (€128) last year and comes on the back of a combination of factors.

Lambs were traditionally finished and sold as replacements. However, last year most lambs were sold as stores and breeding replacements.

As a result, meal feeding (ewe and lamb concentrate) dropped from 68kg/head in 2019 to 39kg last year. Grass utilisation also increased last year, limiting meal requirements.

In addition, lambs weaned/ewe has increased from 1.18 in 2019 to 1.59 last year, driving output to £96/ewe. Dermot attributes this to improved body condition at tupping and cross-breeding horned ewes to increase hybrid vigour.

Peter and Karol McCaughan – Ballycastle, Co Antrim

Brothers Peter and Karol McCaughan farmed 840ha of SDA land with 590 breeding ewes in 2020.

GM/ewe slipped from £9 (€10) to £7 (€8) in 2020, despite a rise in output to £40/ewe (€47). Two years ago, output was £16/ewe (€19).

To improve GM, the focus is on increasing lamb numbers, with 200 maternally bred replacements entering the flock this year.

Most lambs were sold as stores last year at around 36kg liveweight, with a small number finished. Meal feeding (ewes and some lamb concentrate) rose by 4kg to 24kg/head last year.

There is still a long way to go, but progress in being made. Lambs weaned/ewe has increased to 0.94 in 2020, well ahead of the 0.55 lambs weaned/ewe in 2018.

As with some of the other farmers, the barren rate in hill ewes is being addressed under the flock health plan and OPA scanning annually.

Dermot McAleese – Loughguile, Co Antrim

Dermot farms 386ha of upland and hill ground. GM increased from £24 (€28) in 2019 to £60/ewe (€70) in 2020, even with breeding numbers easing back to 500 ewes.

The flock is likely to stabilise at this level. To improve maternal traits, 140 ewe lambs were brought into the system as replacements this year.

Older Blackface ewes are moved to the upland flock for one final year of production, leaving younger, more productive mothers on the hill.

The majority of lambs were sold as stores last year. Meal feeding (ewes only) rose slightly to 32kg in 2020, but has decreased significantly from several years ago. Variable costs were lower year-on-year at £29/ewe (€34).

Lambs weaned per ewe has increased from 1.24 in 2019 to 1.33 last year, helping to lift output from £56 (€65) to £86/ewe (€100).

James McCay – Drumquin, Co Tyrone

James farms 130ha of upland and SDA hill ground, with an average of 300 breeding ewes split evenly between an upland and hill flock.

GM increased from £29 (€34) in 2019 to £34 (€40) in 2020. Ewe numbers have expanded, with a target set for 320 breeding females during the programme.

The majority of lambs were sold live last August and September. Meal feeding (ewe and lamb concentrate) increased slightly at 50kg/head in 2020, compared to 45kg/head during the previous year.

Lambs weaned from ewes put to the ram is an area James is focusing on. This figure was 1.3 lambs/ewe weaned last year.

Barren rates in hill ewes have been identified as the primary cause. Selective culling based on flock records, flock health planning and OPA scanning are being implemented to tackle this issue.