There has been a better tone to the trade since the start of the week, with factory agents showing a firm appetite for good-quality lambs.

This has helped prices to stabilise following last week’s price cuts, but a significant differential remains between prices paid depending on producer negotiating power.

There is only small numbers of lambs trading below a price level of €7.30/kg, with quality assured (QA) lambs trading from €7.30/kg to €7.40/kg from individual sellers.

Those selling through groups or possessing stronger negotiating power are pushing returns to €7.50/kg, with some deals 5c/kg to 10c/kg higher when allowances on transport are factored in.

There is a strong appetite for good-quality lambs, with factories bemoaning the fact that they are continuing to receive significant numbers of lambs killing underweight and under fleshed.

This is a false economy and is only serving to add sheepmeat on to the market which is harder to trade.

IFA sheep chair Sean Dennehy said: “Farmers should refrain from sending underweight lambs to the factory, while those with adequately finished lambs should sell hard to maximise returns in a positive sheep market where factories are paying €7.50/kg and deals of €7.60/kg for groups and larger lots.”

The uncertainty in the market brought higher numbers forward last week, with throughput increasing 5,801 head to reach 52,729. Factories are pessimistic regarding next week’s trade, citing continued uncertainty in export markets.

The kill includes 6,056 ewes and rams, plus 3,122 hoggets, with these continuing to come on stream in a slow but steady stream. The majority of hoggets are being supplied by agents purchasing in marts and specialist finishers.

Prices are hugely variable, depending on quality, with reported prices ranging on average from €6.50/kg to €7/kg and as far back as €4/kg to €5/kg where hoggets have been presented at excessive weights and have teeth set.

Meanwhile, the general run of ewe quotes is €3.20/kg to €3.30/kg, with top prices rising to €3.40/kg to €3.50/kg.

Northern plants have reduced their base quotes by 10p/kg to £5.90/kg (€6.83/kg), but a high percentage of sellers continue to secure returns of £6.00/kg (€6.95/kg), rising to £6.10/kg (€7.07/kg) at the higher end of the market.

The number of sheep imported south for direct slaughter was 2,814 last week, which is less than half the figure for the corresponding week in 2020, with NI factories keen to handle higher throughput.