The number of sheep in Northern Ireland last December was 1,363,500 head, the highest level on record since December 2004, figures show.

The data was collected as part of the December 2016 Agricultural Survey, which was carried out by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

This survey provides estimates of the numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs on farms at the beginning of December. It also provides information on levels of hay and silage production and the amount of winter cereals sown.

DAERA believes the peak in sheep numbers can be attributed to the jump in lamb numbers, which increased by 13% in December 2016, compared to the same month in 2015.

Poor grassing growing conditions in early spring, with wet conditions in the west of the province, hampered the finishing of lambs and this was attributed as the reason why higher numbers of lambs were retained in December.

Results for breeding ewes shows that numbers were relatively unchanged, but the number of ewe lambs sent to the ram decreased by 11%.

This meant that the total breeding flock stood at 912,700 head in Northern Ireland in December, figures show.

In December 2016 the dairy herd population stood at 312,000 cows, a 1% decrease from the previous year, a year which had the highest number on record, according to DAERA.

This decrease brings to an end the year-on-year increases in dairy cow numbers that were experienced for the past three years.

It was also revealed in the survey that total milk production decreased by 2.5% in 2016, which DAERA believes can be partially attributed to the decrease in cow numbers.

Beef cow numbers in the North last December showed a 1% increase compared to the corresponding month in the previous year, bringing the total to 263,500 head.

In total there were 1.625m cattle in Northern Ireland in December, a 1% increase on the previous year.

DAERA believes that stocks of winter forage and short price movements impacted the timing of sales and, therefore, the total number of cattle present on farms during December.

With regard to pigs, the total pig breeding herd population equalled 43,800 in the last month of 2016, 1% higher than the previous year.

The survey also revealed that total pig numbers remained relatively unchanged in December 2016 in the North, at 534,500 head.

Forage and Crops

In 2016 the area of hay cut decreased by almost 20% with yields also falling, the survey revealed.

Because of this overall production of hay amounted to 82,000t, some 29% lower than in 2015 and similar to levels recorded in December 2012, figures show.

The production of silage decreased for a second year in a row to approximately 8.7m tonnes, according to the survey, the lowest amount recorded since 2012.

Both the area cut and average yield were lower in 2016 compared to 2015.

Relatively poor grass growth in early spring, volatile grass growth in the summer, and difficult harvesting conditions due to high rainfall, DAERA believes, would all have restricted the amount of silage saved.

Survey results also revealed that the area of cereal crops in the ground at December 1, 2016, in the North was estimated at 15,800ha, an 11% decrease compared with 2015.

The area sown to winter wheat and winter barley were both down 14% to 7,300ha and 7,100ha respectively, while the area of winter oats returned to similar levels as December 2014 with 1,400ha planted.