Plenty of adverse factors, primarily severe weather with extremes of both hot and cold, stacked up to make life extremely difficult for the UK breeding sheep sector this year.

Like many others, breeders and users of the all-purpose North of England Mule gimmer lamb, which remains Britain’s most prolific sheep breed in terms of numbers and also the country’s most popular commercial sheep, were particularly hard hit.

High profile annual ewe lamb sales at northern auctions marts this autumn failed to reach the heady heights seen in 2017 in terms of both numbers sold and overall selling averages. The feedback from these marts is very similar and tells its own story of a tough and challenging season.

BENTHAM

A total of 13,691 gimmer lambs were sold at the two Bentham Auction Mart fixtures this year, compared to 15,378 in 2017, down 10% on the year. NEMSA lambs at the first sale averaged £76.79, a fall of £23.97 on the previous year’s admittedly very strong sale, and £66.42 at the second sale, down by £16.39.

Auctioneer Stephen Dennis said: “The bumper prices recorded for prime hoggetts during March-May, 2018, caused many farmers to presume that gimmer shearlings would be in short supply and, consequently, a big trade was anticipated, following which it was naturally presumed that gimmer lambs would be dearer, particularly bearing in mind a reduced supply due to a poorer lamb crop.

“Personally, I neither saw, nor heard of many Mule gimmer hoggs being slaughtered in the Spring, so shearlings were as plentiful as ever. When canvassing potential shearling buyers, it soon became apparent that the wet autumn, winter and spring, coupled with ‘The Beast from the East,’ had already made up their minds to reduce flock numbers.

“When the summer drought started to bite, the shearling trade set off at Thame on a flat note and gradually capitulated. As gimmer lamb buyers were contacted, the response of ‘can’t sell our shearlings…. no grass… won’t be coming’ was repeated over and over. The rest is history.”

BARNARD CASTLE/ST JOHNS CHAPEL

Barnard Castle & Teesdale Farmers Auction Market Co reported that breeding sheep sales in Teesdale and Weardale got off to a better than expected start with the Mule shearlings fixture at Barnard Castle Mart and while the sale average of £126.90 was £17.22 down on the year stronger sheep were a marvellous trade.

Next on the agenda was the Barnard Castle Mule gimmer lamb sale, where an entry of 4500 head averaged £90.27. While down £13.53 on 2017, this would be one of the best averages achieved this season, said to be due to the consistency in quality.

The Weardale sale at St Johns Chapel Mart for slightly later born lambs from very high farms saw an overall average for the 2100 Mule gimmer lambs on parade of £81.26, only £3 down on 2017.

Managing director and auctioneer Libby Bell commented: “Autumn 2018 has been a difficult season.  The dry summer and lack of grass resulted in Mule shearlings being difficult to place, particularly at the earlier sales, and the anticipation of winter costs and lack of fodder have certainly knocked confidence, resulting in the drop in prices for the breeding sheep.

“However, our two Dales marts have achieved very satisfactory sales and I feel this is down to a number of factors – the stockmanship and quality of the animals presented, which is a credit to all the vendors, and the support of the buyers both regular and new. A tremendous atmosphere has prevailed at all the sales and this is down to the enthusiasm and goodwill of all concerned. Auction marts are the backbone of the livestock Industry. Don’t forget – use us or loose us.”

CARLISLE /LAZONBY/ KIRKBY STEPHEN/MIDDLETON-IN-TEESDALE

There was a similar story from Harrison & Hetherington in relation to its NEMSA gimmer lamb sales at Carlisle, Lazonby, Kirkby Stephen and Middleton-in-Teesdale.

At Carlisle, 2094 lambs were sold at an average of £97.74, down £4.94 on the year, compared to 2248 head in 2017 at £102.68.

The first Lazonby Alston Moor sale saw 7786 lambs sold at an average of £80.94, down £14 on the year, compared to 9,039 head in 2017, with the third Lazonby sale seeing 3799 NEMSA lambs go under the hammer at an overall average of £61.13, compared to the previous year’s 3130 head and average of £77.51, representing a fall of £16.38.

Auctioneer James Little said: “Top end tupping lambs met a strong local and national trade similar to last year’s rates. However, due to the poor demand for shearlings in the south, smaller running lambs were much more difficult to sell.”

The total number of NEMSA gimmer lambs sold at Kirkby Stephen and Middleton this year was 11,677, a fall of 12% on the year, with the vast majority, namely 9419 head compared to 10.498 in 2017, sold at Kirkby at an average of £86.44, down £17.38 on the year. The overall average for both sales together was £84.85, a fall of 16% on the year.

Mark Richardson, livestock manager and auctioneer at Kirkby Stephen, commented: “A major contributing factor to this was the extreme drought through summer, particularly in the southern regions, which meant many producers down there had either poor or no trade for their shearlings, which had a direct effect on demand for gimmer lambs.

“Also, many were still dry and actually short of grass to buy lambs, even when the lamb sales came around. In addition, I’m sure we still suffered from the extreme bad winter/spring weather conditions, especially in lambing time 2018, which I feel made many sheep farmers think twice about keeping more sheep, with many opting to not replace as many ewes and even cut back on their flock size.”

CCM SKIPTON

Skipton Auction Mart’s first Mule gimmer lamb sale saw the 6064 head forward  average £91.21 overall , down £6.87 on the previous year, with the 7628 on offer at the second sale trading to an overall average of £71.72 (-£20.20). At Skipton’s third, fourth fifth sales, a further 6600 Mule gimmer lambs sold at averages of £59 to £63.

CCM’s livestock sales manager Ted Ogden noted: “ It’s fair to say that the run up to the first sale this year was probably one of the most uncertain for many years, with several external factors, mainly weather related, having a downward effect on the breeding sheep trade countrywide. The average was down on the year, but by no means as much as most would have expected.

“It was the following sales which took the largest hits on average prices, as the deepening drought conditions took their toll on potential buyers across the south and midland counties.

“Strong tupping lambs and smart well-bred lambs generally held their prices better than a second quality running lamb did and maybe this reflected some purchasers’ desire to have Mule lambs, even in the face of adversity, so long as the quality was right.

“The Mule sheep still retains her status as the best ewe for finishing a set of twin Down or Continental-cross lambs off grass by early summer on a cost-effective system, and she still remains the ewe of choice for many lowland farmers.

“However, when breeding and promoting the North of England Mule we must remember her roots and a main purpose as a commercial prime lamb producer.”

COCKERMOUTH

At Cockermouth, Mitchells Auction Mart’s great annual show and sale of Mule gimmer lambs attracted 7560 NEMSA entries, which averaged £77.07, compared to 7800 the previous year at an average of £90.91.

HAWES

At its first great annual two-day show and sale, Hawes Farmers Auction Mart sold 23,036 NEMSA gimmer lambs at an average of £79.06, which was £19 down on 2017. Subsequent sales produced very similar trade for progressively smaller lambs, the second fixture seeing 7035 Mule gimmer lambs average £63.53 and £51.27 for 1639 lambs at the third sale.

Throughout the season, while trade was difficult, Hawes still managed to place 99% of all lambs forward. Chairman Andrew Pratt said: “I think it is not difficult to see why trade was so severely affected, with the severe drought taking its toll on grazing.

“Many customers cited the inability to move on shearlings, bought as lambs in 2017, because their customers had no grass, as the main reason restricting their purchases this year and a lack of grass – or a need to make late cuts of forage on land normally grazed – on their own farms. The whole of the stratified nature of the breeding sheep industry in this country, ground to a halt due to a lack of rain.”

HEXHAM/TOW LAW

Hexham and Northern Marts ’ opening ewe lamb sale attracted 1780 head, most from NEMSA members and the majority ex North of England Blackface ewes. The overall average of £110.56 was down just £3.20 on 2017.

The second sale saw 1850 NEMSA lambs go under the hammer to average £86.23, down £16.10 on 2017.

Auctioneer Trevor Simpson commented: “The first sale is always for top draw lambs, which were again purchased by both regular local and distant buyers as their replacements. It was a good show of lambs and we were pleased with trade on the year.

“At the second sale, due to the poor spring and lack of grass this summer, lambs were not as strong. Also, running lamb purchasers have been selling their shearlings at less money and are also unable to sell numbers, resulting in the drop in lamb prices, in particular the small runners.”

The traditional Tow Law sale of Mule ewe lambs, out of Swaledale ewes, sold at Hexham on behalf of NEMSA’s Weardale branch saw 5810 head average £84.23, a fall of £10.02 on the year.

Mr Simpson said: “Here again, due to the poor Spring and summer, lambs overall would be smaller, although the strong tupping and running lambs were easily sold. However, small runners were hard to cash. This was due to reduced rates in the shearling prices and many purchasers still with numbers not sold from last year’s purchases.”

KENDAL/LANCASTER

North West Auctions again hosted the Kendal branch of NEMSA Mule gimmer lamb sale, alongside the annual sale at the Lancaster site, which included NEMSA-bred gimmers.

At Kendal J36, the ‘Stars in Your Eyes’ Mule gimmer lambs highlight saw the largest entry out to show yet.  While the top pens sold to an equally strong trade as the previous year, the overall market average finished at £71, back on the year from £95 in 2017. Numbers were also 15% down on the year at 7229.

Auctioneer Ian Atkinson said: “The previous 12 months has not been kind on the upland and hill farmers in the Kendal and Lake District area. A very wet winter, also including the ‘Beast from the East,’ made for a tough spring, followed by a very dry summer in which many farms grass burnt, meaning a shortage of grass throughout the summer months.

“However, once again, there were plenty of good quality bred lambs on offer and credit goes to the vendors, but with tough growing conditions this summer lambs were the smallest seen for some time.

“This, combined with a dry summer and shortage of grass in the south, meant gimmer shearlings were very difficult to market, which led to less demand from the southern buyers, with many wanting to purchase their sheep for less, or some not wanting to purchase any gimmer lambs and retaining their shearlings instead.”

Lancaster enjoyed a buoyant trade on a tough year, finishing with a very respectable average of £78, £14 back on the previous year with a few less numbers of lambs 1000 head – sold.

“A large quantity of tupping lambs was available, with the dry summer suiting the wet land in the forest of Bowland area. A strong backing of local farmer buyers and regular customers ensured the trade was strong, although a few southern buyers were noticeably missing due to lack of interest,” explained Mr Atkinson.

LEYBURN

Leyburn Auction Mart’s special sale saw 1224 Mule gimmer lambs go under the hammer, averaging £83.30, down £12.50 on 2017.

Auctioneer & Manager, Stephen Walker, said: “We would put this reduction in price almost wholly down to the drought suffered through the summer, when our southern buyers were not in a position to accommodate sheep. This, of course, had a knock-on effect further north and affected the whole run of breeding sales. You could also argue that the severe, expensive spring weather and Brexit uncertainty contributed.”

LONGTOWN

C&D Auction Marts’ Mule gimmer lamb sales attracted a total of 5157 head this year, which averaged £78.25, £8 back on the year. Corresponding figures for 2017 were 5108 head at £87.81.

John Walton, auctioneer and head of sheep sales, said: “Strong tupping lambs would be a similar trade on the year and proved short of buyers’ requirements, but the smaller running lambs have proved hard to cash this backend, simply due to the poorer trade for second rate Mule shearlings and the drought this summer, which led to a distinct lack of grass keep in the south.”

PENRITH

Penrith Auction Mart normally sells around 9,000 gimmer lambs at its main sale and this year was no different, though, like others, the overall average was down by £10.50 at £80.25. However, auctioneer Andrew Maughan said plenty of runs of lambs still made £90 to £100, which under the circumstances was regarded as quite satisfactory.

WIGTON

Wigton Auction Mart sold 2076 ewe lambs this year at an average of £79.36, both down on corresponding 2017 figures of 2371 sold at £92.57.

David Bowman, of Hopes Auctioneers, said: “Trade was better than expected given presale forecasts and other sale results. We had fewer for sale as a result of various factors, the main one being that the spring produced fewer lambs and then the summer held growth rates back, so some of our vendors did not show as many as in previous years.”