Statistics from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) latest livestock survey has shown English sheep flock numbers to be at their lowest in 12 years.

The Defra survey shows the English sheep flock has declined 3.2% year-on-year, totalling 14.5 million heads in June 2023 – this is the lowest recorded population since 2011.

The female breeding flock saw a reduction of 116,000 heads (-1.6%) to stand at nearly 7 million heads in June 2023.

Looking at this by category, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) said there was a “notable increase” in breeding ewes intended for slaughter, up 8.8% compared to the same period last year.

This was countered by declines in the number of ewes intended for first time breeding (-8.3%) and ewes intended for further breeding (-1.3%).

While a decline versus last year, the number of ewes for further and first-time breeding was relatively level with numbers recorded in 2021.

“Declines were also seen in the rest of the English flock, driven by a reduction of 4.9% (364,000 head) in lambs aged under a year old, compared to the June 2022 survey,” AHDB said.

“Ram numbers did see a slight increase of 1.2% year-on-year alongside an increase of 3.5% of other sheep one-year-old and over.

“These reductions continue the general trend in the total English flock seen since 2017.”

AHDB said industry challenges are well documented, including:

  • Input cost fluctuation;
  • Changes to direct payments;
  • Agricultural policy and government support schemes;
  • Consumer purchasing trends.