UK sheep sector was still profitable in 2020 even in the face of a pandemic

The value of UK sheep meat exports increased by almost 10 percent last year despite the difficulties brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Newly released data for 2020 has revealed a profitable year for the sector against the backdrop of reduced volume of exports and changing consumer patterns.

HMRC’s figures show the value of exports increased by nearly 10%, while the total volume amounted to 88,200 tonnes, a drop of 7.2% (or 6,850 tonnes) since 2019, which was a strong year for exports.

The main driver in the dip in sheep meat exports from the UK was a cutback of 10.4% in shipments to France, the UK’s largest overseas market

If compared against 2018 totals, both volume and value of sheep meat exports in 2020 were considerably higher, up 19.1% and 6.1% respectively.

The amount of sheep meat imported into the UK fell last year, figures show, by 6.6 percent to total 58,500 tonnes.

Contributory factors to the changes in meat movement include the impact of the pandemic and an overall 3.7% decrease in sheep meat production in the UK.

These factors sit alongside post-Brexit uncertainty and global issues such as the African swine fever crisis in Asia.

A shift in demand also led to decreased exports of beef: the total volume exported was down by 13.8%, however, the value also dipped by 17.3%.

Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) said the Covid-19 pandemic caused considerable disruption for trade in 2020.

However, demand from some emerging markets and into countries where product is sold mostly into retail, did not decline.

Glesni Phillips, data analyst at HCC, said: “Export volumes to the Middle East increased by 18.3% whilst value also shot up by 37.4%, with Welsh processors leading the way.

“There was also an increase of 27.7% in volume sent to Italy (an additional 1,150 tonnes), again with Welsh Lamb securing important new business in the retail sector.”

Ms Phillips explained that import levels were also subdued as a result of factors at home and abroad.

“Imports are often highest during the first half of the year due to the nature of sheep meat availability in the UK. In 2020, this coincided with the start of the pandemic.

“New Zealand is the main importer of sheep meat into our country and a 2.4% decrease in shipments was partly due to the overall decline due to drought conditions which limited their supply

“This was coupled with an ongoing increase in demand for meat from Asia following the African Swine Fever which diverted some New Zealand sheep meat away from the UK.”

The overall decrease in beef exports can be attributed to Covid-19 disrupting trade flows despite a 1.9% rise in beef production in the UK during the period.

Beef prices have also been relatively high in the UK which made exports less competitive.

There were fewer imports of beef from Ireland, the Netherlands and Poland during the year resulting in an overall reduction of 3.3%, whilst value was also down by 2.9%.

“2020 was unprecedented for all industries and the red meat sector was no exception,” explained Ms Phillips.

“But the unequivocal support of customers in the UK ensured a constant retail demand for red meat.”

Study shows data-driven beef breeding can reduce methane emission by up to 40%

Beef produced on farms across the British Isles is widely recognised and being amongst the most sustainable in the world. This is evidenced by the fact that its carbon footprint of approximately half of the global average. Nonetheless, results of a multi-year study involving over 4,000 animals at ABP’s Demonstration Farms in Shropshire and in Ireland have shown that the level of methane emissions could be reduced by up to 40% against ABP’s current average, when a more data-driven approach is applied across the supply chain.

The findings were presented by ABP at this year’s City Food Lecture. The study shows that by using a data-driven approach to selective breeding, it is possible to encourage the siring of beef animals that are more efficient at converting feed to protein, reaching their target weight earlier and thereby significantly reducing their environmental footprint.

In addition to the environmental benefits, farmers could improve their economic returns by up to £100 per head – demonstrating that economic and environmental sustainability can travel hand in hand.

Dean Holroyd, ABP’s Technical and Sustainability Director, said: “The purpose of this work is to demonstrate what can be achieved on a typical farm. By harnessing data and information across the entire supply chain from conception to plate this research shows we can further improve economic and environmental performance of UK beef farmers in a global marketplace while also satisfying changing consumer desires for more sustainable diets.”