The figures from 2011 show that sheep meat exports from the UK increased by 11% on the year, to 98,500 tonnes product weight, while imports fell 13% to 88,000 tonnes product weight during the same period.
This is particularly significant given that product weight imports have exceeded exports for most of the last fifty years.
The rise in exports was mainly driven by very strong demand on the continent with a number of EU member states increasingly looking to the UK. Exports to France accounted for 60%, increasing 3.1% by volume. Shipments to Germany and Ireland also increased by around two thirds year-on-year.
Exports to non-EU markets were also up a significant degree, up 41% year-on-year to 5,800 tonnes. Destinations included Switzerland, Norway, various African states including South Africa and Congo, Hong Kong and Far Eastern markets. Further growth in non-EU markets is expected to drive an overall increase in sheep meat exports in 2012.
Peter Hardwick, head of trade development at EBLEX, said: “Figures for 2011 show that the UK has become a net exporter of lamb. The UK is a major sheep meat producer, the largest in the EU and third in terms of global trade behind only Australia and New Zealand.
“While becoming a net exporter of lamb is a significant milestone for the industry in the UK, exports remain largely limited to trade within the EU with non-EU exports for the period representing 5% to 6% of the total.
“The key challenge in terms of lamb exports remains access to target markets such as China, North Africa, South Africa, Russia, the USA and several Middle East markets. Population growth and growing affluence is presenting new opportunities for exports in developing markets in particular but these simply cannot be exploited without market access.”