Newly released export data for 2020 has revealed a profitable year for the UK sheep sector, despite a slightly reduced volume of exports and changing consumer trends as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) figures show that the value of UK sheep meat exports increased by almost 10%, whilst the total volume amounted to 88,200t, a drop of 7.2% (or 6,850 tonnes) since 2019, which was a strong year for exports.

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, by 6.6% to total 58,500t.

Contributory factors to the changes in meat movement include the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and an overall 3.7% decrease in sheep meat production in the UK, alongside post-Brexit uncertainty and global factors 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%.

‘Considerable disruption for trade’

Glesni Phillips, data analyst at Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) said: “Covid-19 caused considerable disruption for trade in 2020.

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. This was a result of reduced demand from the foodservice sector.

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

“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 1,150t], again with Welsh Lamb securing important new business in the retail sector.”

Import levels

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

He said:

“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%.