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.

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

Compared against 2018 totals, both volume and value of sheep meat exports in 2020 were considerably higher, up 19.1 per cent and 6.1 per cent respectively.

The amount of sheep meat imported into the UK fell, by 6.6 per cent to total 58,500 tonnes.

Contributory factors to the changes in meat movement include the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and an overall 3.7 per cent decrease in sheep meat production in the UK, alongside post-Brexit uncertainty and global factors such as the ASF crisis in Asia.

A shift in demand also led to decreased exports of beef. The total volume exported was down by 13.8 per cent, however, the value also dipped by 17.3 per cent.

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 per cent 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 per cent whilst value also shot up by 37.4 per cent, with Welsh processors leading the way.

"There was also an increase of 27.7 per cent in volume sent to Italy (an additional 1,150 tonnes), again with Welsh lamb securing important new business in the retail sector.”

Glesni Phillips explained that import levels were also subdued as a result of factors at home and abroad. “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 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent, whilst value was also down by 2.9 per cent.

For a more detailed analysis of HMRC’s trade data, take a look at HCC’s latest Market Bulletin at