In many ways lamb production represents the forgotten sector of agriculture in Northern Ireland.
Yet output from the industry continues to make a vitally important contribution to the food sector and the rural economy as a whole. Sheep tick all the boxes. Management systems tend to be quite extensive in nature, making them good for the environment; ewes thrive where cows cannot and, of course, sheep production systems fit well within a part-time farming model.
Add in the fact that sheep farmers should do proportionately better from the new CAP arrangements, as Pillar 1 payments move to a flat rate/area based model, and it’s hard not to conclude that the industry has a pretty bright future ahead of it.
So much for the background: adding real impetus to the fortunes of the industry at the present time is the fact that flockowners, right across Northern Ireland, are confirming record lambing percentages.
It’s a very simple equation: the more lambs available for sale, the greater the likelihood of making a profit. The core issue then becomes one of keeping all these extra animals alive. The good news here is that farmers have full control of the factors that will allow them meet this challenge. Either they have the management qualities to make this work for them or they don’t. No finger pointing at the EU or cursing the state of international markets comes into play when it comes to honing one’s sheep husbandry skills.
Adding an extra bounce in the step of flockowners is the recent strengthening of the Euro against Sterling.
Approximately, half a million lambs are exported live from Northern Ireland to the Republic annually. In addition, a significant proportion of our lamb meat exports are destined for the Euro zone with France the number one market in this context.
Admittedly, the sheep industry has had its ups and downs to contend with in the past. For example, it is the sector that is most vulnerable to the weather. Most of us well remember the carnage caused by the heavy snows of March 2013 and the heavy lamb losses that ensued. Let’s hope this will not be repeated over the coming weeks.
However, if all goes according to plan, sheep producers should have a decent enough year to look forward to in 2016. And, let’s be honest, agriculture in Northern Ireland will need a few good stories to relate over the coming months.