While the UK is technically self sufficient in sheep meat, we continue to import large quantities, primarily from New Zealand.
In 2012, for example, the UK imported 86,100 tonnes product weight of sheep meat, 73 per cent of which came from New Zealand. During the same period the UK exported 94,700 tonnes.
A question we’re often asked though is, ‘if we’re self sufficient, why does the UK import so much sheep meat?’ The reasons are numerous and complex but can broadly split into four areas – historic, market, seasonal and economic.
The UK has been importing New Zealand sheep meat for 130 years, with unrestricted imports until 1973 when the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC). At the time, the UK was only circa 40 per cent self sufficient. To give it some context, prior to joining the EEC, the UK took the vast majority of New Zealand’s lamb exports – 86 per cent in 1970. Today the UK takes around 20 per cent and in 2012 China overtook the UK as the primary destination for New Zealand lamb.
From 1972 to 1999, the UK sheep flock grew from 27.9 million head to 44.7 million head, with the UK’s self sufficiency rate increasing to 95 per cent to coincide with increasing production. Increasing production drove rising UK export volumes and, despite a fall in the 2000s, today the UK exports around 100,000 tonnes.
However, while the UK market is technically self-sufficient, it is not functionally self sufficient. The UK demands a larger volume of higher end cuts such as legs and chops, while UK exports consist mainly of carcases and a large proportion of low value cuts to emerging markets.
Most UK imports, particularly from New Zealand, are frozen, which is generally cheaper and aimed at providing a wider range of choice and availability for consumers. The vast majority of UK exports are chilled and includes product the UK market does not usually consume, highlighting the need to export. A drop in UK imports from New Zealand would likely result in a drop in UK sheep meat consumption.
The UK sheep sector continues to be subject to a very seasonal pattern. The bulk of production takes place in the second part of the year and does not necessarily coincide with domestic demand. At Easter, for example, New Zealand production peaks to coincide with UK demand. The complementary seasons allow grass-finished lamb and new season lamb to be available all year round, and the use of imports also allows lamb to maintain shelf space throughout the year. Ultimately, the balance of imports and exports helps iron out demand and supply peaks in the UK sheep industry and is therefore beneficial to the sector.
The dominance of the major supermarkets in the UK retail sector allows a wider range of sheep meat consumption, generally through a cheaper retail price and increased promotional activity.
So far in 2013, the UK is the second largest importer of sheep meat in the world, while holding its position as the third largest exporter globally. However, if it weren’t for imported product, we would likely see a decline in domestic consumption, rather than a large scale switch into domestic product due to surplus sheep meat being the wrong type of product, lack of availability at the right time and being priced above the reach of some consumers.
When you look at the bigger picture, it’s a question of striking the right balance between imports and exports to satisfy domestic and global demand, while maximising returns for UK producers through full carcase utilisation.