Murray MacLeod: Let’s hope the good lamb prices are here to stay!

Murray MacLeod, on crofting….

This is a crucial time of year for crofters and farmers the length and breadth of the Highlands and Islands.

It’s annual autumn sales time, when lambs and calves get sent to auction and the fruits of a year-long labour become evident.

You’ll often hear complaints of low financial returns, that it is merely a labour of love, or an extravagant hobby for sons and daughters of the soil.

But that hardly means it has no economic worth, even if in terms of financial returns it compares poorly with even a generation ago.

I recently came across an old receipt of my late father’s. It was from the local butcher in Ness in north Lewis, dated August 1978. My father had sold five “wedders” (that’s a male lamb that’s been castrated at a young age) at £25 a head.

A quick calculation on Google, suggests that would be worth around £136 today. And they would have been sheep from the moor, not the magnificently rotund shiny specimens you get nowadays on the lushest of pastures.

Prices at the mart in Portree have been encouraging

But that was then and this is now. Today a decent wedder lamb might be worth around £40, less for smaller ones.

So changed days indeed, but let’s not underestimate the economic value it still provides to communities.

Every year between 25,000 to 30,000 lambs are sold from Skye. Let’s call it 27,000 for ease of calculation and let’s say they average a conservative £35 a head (last week’s prices were higher).

That’s around £1 million coming into island coffers from lamb sales alone every year.

Add calves and the older sheep that get sold into that mix and you’re talking in the region of £2 million per annum. Maybe still not as much as tourism, granted, but hardly insignificant either.

And where does that money go?

Well, you can be fairly sure it’s not used for any unnecessary luxuries. It will find its way to the fencer, the joiner, the mechanic, the feed merchant – providing a vital cog in the circular economy of the island.

And for Skye, read Lewis and Harris and Uist and Barra.

The vast majority of the lambs across the Highlands and Islands go to what’s called the “store” market. Basically what that means is that they are bought to fatten elsewhere on better ground, very often on arable farms in the east of the country; “stored” until they are fat enough to enter the food chain.

Sometimes that might only take days, but more often than not weeks and even months and, naturally enough, the longer the time to fatten the lower the price at auction.

The big problem, though, compared to 1978, is that Scotland has simply fallen out of love with eating lamb.

We’re still a big producer because of climate and topography, but the vast percentage goes abroad. Around 50 per cent of Scottish lamb goes to France alone, even though France herself produces a lot of lamb.

But when it comes to quality food the French know their stuff.

However, that reliance on one European market could be a big problem going forward and it’s because of… yes, you’ve probably guessed… Brexit. What deal will be done and what tariffs imposed, if any, will have a major bearing on what price producers get?

That should all become clear in the next few months and it’s a worrying and uncertain time, so it was rather gratifying that for this autumn at least the prices have been good, maybe even eyebrow-raising.

Across the board, lambs have been going for around £10 a head higher than last year. So a welcome boost and no doubt a few wee drams toasted in appreciation.

But there are specific reasons for this price hike and it could be all too temporary.

Firstly, the good growing weather this year has meant that a lot of the lambs down south have entered the food chain earlier than usual, so there’s been a general shortage. But, more pertinently, there are fears of further lockdowns and the buyers have been desperate to get their hands on as much as possible while they can.

So, no real indicator of long-term trends I’m afraid.

Where the Brexit uncertainty will leave lamb production in the marginal areas like ours remains to be seen.

Things may change, the industry may struggle, or it may come through relatively unscathed and who knows maybe even new markets uncovered. Or maybe we’ll all just all re-discover the delights of roast lamb. How good would that be?

It takes real commitment to keep livestock and there have been challenging times before, just think of foot and mouth and that was not long ago.

No doubt there will be a clamour for diversification and while fine in theory the problem is that sheep production lends itself perfectly to the type of land and environment we have here.

So let’s hope it’s here to stay.

Let’s hope that the annual autumn sales continue to provide a vital economic contribution to island communities and that our wonderful landscape remains maintained and shaped by grazing animals, even if the halcyon days of 1978 look destined never to return.

Murray Macleod is a journalist and crofter who lives in Lewis.