Sheep Farming


According to the Department of Agriculture’s sheep census in December 2010, there were 2.2million breeding ewes in Ireland, a 1.35% increase on the previous year.

Between 2005 and 2010, Ireland’s flock contracted by one fifth, mainly due to poor returns, the relatively high average age of sheep farmers and the heavy labour demands of sheep flocks. Fortunes improved in 2010 and 2011 as prices in Ireland responded to the global tightening in supply of sheep-meat. Farmers responded – 2010 was the first year in over a decade when there was not a decline in the size of Ireland’s sheep flock.

The top five counties in terms of sheep numbers are all characterised by mountainous terrain – Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Kerry and Wicklow.

In counties such as Cork, Tipperary, Carlow and Kilkenny, sheep numbers are under pressure as farmers switch to other enterprises, particularly dairy and beef.

Ireland’s sheep flocks tend to be very small scale by international standards, with 50% of sheep flocks having less than 50 ewes. This compares with an average flock size of over 200 in Scotland and 1,400 in the world’s largest exporter, New Zealand.    

A positive for Ireland’s sheep industry is that the European Union is deficient in sheep meat, with consumption of an estimated 1.2million tonnes per annum compared to production of around 0.9 million  tonnes. Globally, the sheep flock is also in decline, leading to increased opportunities for Irish exports. 2011 has seen that factor reflected in higher farm gate prices in Ireland.

Due to the small scale of the domestic market, two out of every three sheep in Ireland is destined for export. In 2011, Ireland exported 41,000 tonnes of sheep meat worth €180 million. The French market accounted for 45% of Irish sheep meat exports. The UK, at about 25%, is also a significant market for Ireland.


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