EU Sheep Industry

Sheep production in Europe

Sheep Production: key farm enterprise in many “less favoured areas”

Sheep meat and sheep milk production are very important farm enterprises in Europe and play a key social, economic and environmental role in many “less favoured areas”. Currently there are 85 million sheep on 830, 000 farms in Europe and 33 million sheep on 127,000 farms in Turkey (Table 1). There are more sheep in Europe than in Australia and New Zealand combined. The number of sheep producers in the EU has declined by 50% since 2000 and during the past 10 years sheep productivity has decreased by up to 40% depending on the country and the farming system. This decline in sheep production may be due to a number of factors including profitability, part-time farmers, reduced labour availability, lack of uptake of technology and innovation, etc.

Table 1: Total sheep and breeding female sheep population (million) for each of the countries involved in SheepNet (Eurostat, 2018)


Total sheep

Breeding females






















EU is not self-sufficient in sheep meat

The EU is the second largest importer of sheep meat in the world as it is only 85% self-sufficient in sheep meat. The average EU per capita consumption of sheep meat is 2.1kg. There is an opportunity to increase production without having to export excess sheep meat. An increase in ewe productivity of 0.1 lambs reared per ewe joined would be equivalent to 64,000 tonnes of sheep meat, increasing self-sufficiency to 92%.   

The UK, Spain, France, Romania, Ireland and Italy are the largest producers of sheep meat in Europe. The UK has the largest number of ewes in Europe while Ireland is the largest net exporter of sheep meat in the EU. As well as sheep meat production there are a significant number of dairy sheep in Europe producing milk and cheese. The ratio of dairy to meat sheep varies by country as can be seen in Figure 1. Romania has the largest number of dairy sheep in the EU followed by Italy. 

Figure 1Percentage of dairy and meat producing females for each of the countries involved in SheepNet (Eurostat, 2018)


Huge scope to improve Sheep Productivity across EU

Sheep production in Europe presents a great diversity of production systems due to differences in ewe genotype, environmental conditions, lambing frequency etc. Average prolificacy (litter size) in the systems of sheep production in Europe ranges from 1.2 to 1.7 lambs born per ewe lambing and tends to be higher in lowlands systems (1.47) compared to systems in mountain areas (1.31). The average number of lambs reared per ewe joined ranges from 1 to 1.5 in most of the systems across Europe. However high productive rates are achievable, for example the Assaf breed in Spain and are permanently indoors in an accelerated reproductive strategy rear up to 2.5 lambs reared per ewe joined. In some regions ewe productivity has not improved over the last 30 years

There are significant opportunities to improve ewe productivity in most systems by improving reproduction success and lamb survivability thus improving farm profitability and increasing the self sufficiency of sheep meat in Europe.