The number of breeding ewes over 12 months of age on farms on 31 December 2023 fell by almost 100,000 head on December 2022 levels. The 3.7% (99,637 head) fall recorded in the Department of Agriculture’s Annual Sheep and Goat Census left breeding ewe numbers standing at 2.56m head.

There was also a sharp fall of 185,113 head, or 14.7%, in the number of sheep in the ‘other sheep’ category. This category includes mainly 2023-born progeny and excludes breeding ewes over 12 months of age and breeding rams.

The reduction in sheep numbers tallies with reduced factory throughput for the year-to-date. The number of hoggets slaughtered in 2024 is running 81,450 head lower, while the lamb kill is running 64,557 head lower and ewes and rams slaughtered is 19,460 head lower.

Analysing census data and weekly kill data shows that there could be upwards of 100,000 fewer ewe hogget replacements on farms. If this is the case, then it is likely to signal further significant reductions in the breeding ewe flock in the coming years.

County analysis

Figure 1 details the number of breeding ewes in each county on 31 December and the percentage reduction on 12 months previous. Galway experienced the largest numerical reduction of some 13,762 ewes. Surprisingly, Roscommon was next in line, with breeding ewe numbers falling by 9,129 head.

The largest percentage reduction of 12.5% occurred in Offaly, with Monaghan and Clare not far behind at 11.9% and 10.8%, respectively.

Ewe numbers continue to fall significantly in counties with a strong dairy stronghold, or which have experienced a high rate of conversions to dairying in recent years. Limerick, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Wexford and Westmeath all recorded reduction in ewe numbers of between 7% and 9%, with Carlow and Meath just outside this range.

The only county to defy a reduction in breeding ewe numbers was Leitrim, with numbers marginally increasing by 364 head. Donegal continues to possess the largest number of breeding ewes and along with Mayo, are the only counties home to in excess of 300,000 breeding ewes.

This is largely due to the combination of substantial hill and lowland flocks as reflected in Figure 2. The four counties combined of Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry possess 47% of the national breeding ewe flock. Limerick remains the county with the fewest ewes, while Clare has replaced Dublin as the county with the second lowest number of breeding ewes.

Other sheep

Table 1 details the number of ‘other sheep’ per county and the change on December 2022 levels. Sheep numbers in Cork fell heavily by over 30,000 head, or a massive 43%. It is unclear what is driving the extent of such a fall in Cork compared to other counties in the southeast.

There was double digit reductions recorded in all but six counties, with Kildare and Donegal recording the lowest reductions on a percentage basis.

Census stats

The number of flocks possessing sheep on 31 December 2023 stood at 34,519 head, a reduction of 1,189 flocks on the year previous.

There were just over 7,000 census returns received from flocks who did not possess sheep at that point in time.

Census applications were issued to approximately 1,482 flocks, which were either newly approved or reactivated to keep sheep.

Just under 900 respondents who did not possess sheep on the census date indicated that they did not intend to re-enter sheep farming in the near future. Some 44% of returns were submitted online.