High retail prices and changing eating habits present challenges to the world’s lamb industry, but a focus on quality is pushing the meat to the premium end of the market
To the slaughter
Lamb traditionally meant the flesh of a baby sheep that had yet to eat grass. Lambs, which now eat solid food soon after birth, are slaughtered between five and 14 months old – with the average weight varying in different countries.
10,000 years and counting
Rearing sheep is thought to date back more than 10,0000 years, and is often cited as man’s oldest industry. Wool came later, although it then became the first commodity of sufficient value to warrant international trade.
Emissions hot air?
The carbon footprint of the average UK consumer of lamb is said to be 122kg of CO2 a year. That’s less than that of a single flight from London to Edinburgh.
A global flock
There are around 1bn sheep worldwide, according to the UK’s National Sheep Association – and the UK is home to 3% of the global flock. China is the biggest producer of sheep meat, followed by Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Sudan and Turkey, with the UK taking sixth place.
Weight of expectation
A good target weight gain for farmed lambs is 250g per day. From eight weeks old a lamb’s energy intake is greater from grass than from milk. White clover in pastures can increase the rate gain from weaning to slaughter by 25%.
Japan lifted its ban on British lamb and beef in 2019. The agreement is worth some £52m, and may help the UK manage forthcoming EU trade issues.
Not just meat
As well as lamb and wool, sheep production yields lanolin – a byproduct used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. It is used in making tape, inks and motor oils, as well as lipstick, mascara and shampoo. And cheeses including feta and ricotta are made using sheep’s milk.
Latest estimates suggest Australian farmers have lost 1.7 million sheep due to bushfires – an amount that will cause a 2.4% drop in the size of the national sheep flock during 2020.
What they say
“This lamb is so undercooked, it’s following Mary to school.”
Gordon Ramsay, Chef and TV personality
“The department of agriculture doesn’t think coronavirus will have much impact on China’s sheepmeat demand… However, if efforts to contain the disease cause ongoing disruptions, Australian export volumes will suffer.”
Vernon Graham, Acting livestock editor, Australian publication The Land
“It’s time for us to eat less meat, or at the very least spread the load of our carnivorous diets by buying from smaller producers and varying our choices, perhaps even by rediscovering our love of lamb.”
Lizzie Rivera, Founder of food ethics website www.bicbim.co.uk
Veganism might be rising, but global meat production shows no signs of abating, with production predicted to be 16% higher by 2025 compared to 2013-15. Lamb, however, has long presented a more complex picture. Demand in the US has doubled in the last decade, but in the UK, consumption is down 30% since 2000. China is the largest consumer, but exports virtually none. Australia and New Zealand are responsible for 70% of exports, despite rearing just 8% and 5% of global lamb respectively, and that makes any shocks there – such as the recent bushfires in Australia – significant. Around 13% of Australia’s sheep are in areas affected by fire. Losses have already seen prices surge by 50%, and rises are expected to continue into this year. If China turns to New Zealand – the leading exporter to Europe – to meet its demand, prices could rise in Europe too.