The results of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) June 2023 sheep census shows UK flock numbers falling by 4% to 31.8m head and reaching their lowest level since 2011.

Reporting on the census results, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) explains that the breeding ewe flock contracted by 2.4% to 15.4m head.

This reduction was driven by a 219,000 head (1.7%) reduction in the number of ewes kept for further breeding, while the number of ewes destined for first-time breeding was 168,000 head or 6.1% lower.

AHBD analyst Becky Smith says the reductions may be linked to high feed costs and other input costs combined with market uncertainty encouraging farmers to scale back production.

Greatest reduction

The greatest reduction was witnessed in the category of lambs aged less than one year old, with numbers falling by 998,000 head, or a sizeable 6.1% on the year previous, and standing at 15.5m head.

The AHDB suggests this is reflective of a smaller or delayed lamb crop for the 2023 season, a relatively wet and cold spring and industry reports of variable scanning rates.

In contrast, the number of sheep in the ‘other sheep and lambs aged one year and over’ category increased by 18,000 head (3.7%) to reach 517,000 head.

This is attributed to a higher carryover of 2022-born lambs into 2023, with poor weather and high feed costs blamed for delayed finishing of hoggets.

This sentiment is backed up, according to the AHDB, by an increased number of hoggets marketed in auctions compared with the previous year.

Welsh flock records largest reduction

Comparing across the nations, the greatest contraction was seen in Wales, down 195,000 head (-4.2%) in the female breeding flock year on year.

England and Scotland saw 1.6% and 1.7% declines respectively in breeding female sheep populations.