Meat & Livestock News

UK Sheep Flock Shrinks to Lowest in Over a Decade, Defra Reports


  1. Significant Decrease: The UK’s sheep population has dropped to its lowest in 12 years, now at 31.8 million, marking a 4% decline from the previous year.
  2. Breeding Flock Reduction: The female breeding flock decreased by 2.4%, totaling 15.4 million, affected by high feed costs and market uncertainty.
  3. Mixed Trends: While lambs under one year old decreased by 6%, older sheep and lambs increased by 3.7%, influenced by weather and feed costs.

The UK’s sheep population has reached its lowest point in twelve years, according to the latest census data from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). As of 1 June 2023, the sheep flock numbered 31.8 million, a 4% decrease from the previous year.

The female breeding flock saw a 2.4% year-on-year decline, now totalling 15.4 million. This includes a 1.7% reduction in ewes kept for breeding or slaughter (a decrease of 219,000) and a 6.1% drop in first-time breeding ewes (down by 168,000). These figures suggest that high feed costs and market uncertainty are leading farmers to reduce their flocks.

Lambs under one-year-old saw a 6% reduction, totalling 15.5 million, indicating a smaller or delayed lamb crop for the season. This is likely due to a wet and cold spring and variable scanning rates.

Ram numbers decreased slightly by 0.9% to 387,000, continuing a trend of long-term contraction in line with the shrinking breeding flock. This trend is also influenced by improvements in ram productivity and selective breeding.

In contrast, the number of other sheep and lambs over one-year-old increased by 3.7% to 517,000. This rise is attributed to a larger carry-over of old-season lambs into 2023, likely due to poor weather and high feed costs.

Wales experienced the most significant contraction in its female breeding flock, with a 4.2% decrease year-on-year. England and Scotland also saw declines in their breeding female sheep populations.

Looking ahead to 2024, the sheep population and production in the UK may continue to contract, influenced by the reduced number of breeding ewes. The conditions at tupping and lambing will also impact the industry’s future.