Irish Food Board forecasts much tighter availability than MLC analysts Abundant cheap lamb next autumn is no longer the safe bet it seemed a few weeks ago. Supplies may even be severely squeezed in early 2002. The odds still favour softening prices in coming months as British production rises with the relaxation of FMD controls while the export ban prevents the traditional outflow to the continent. However, cyclical and structural changes in overall EU output are beginning to suggest the market would have become tighter than indicated by most forecasts a few months ago if FMD had not happened, and hint that the disruption caused by the disease within Britain has more complex implications. Reassessment of supply prospects is prompted by a stream of sheep sector statistics and predictions from Brussels, with intriguing differences between member state analysts. From the British perspective, as observed by MLC, Brussels appears to be forecasting a modest decline in EU slaughterings this year, slightly over 4%, following a mild contraction of the flock. The predicted kill reduction can be attributed mostly to the FMD-related controls in the UK, the biggest EU producer. But abattoir throughputs will be recovering here in the second half of the year, MLC points out, and there has been flock expansion in Spain's huge sheep industry, and in Italy and Greece. From the Irish Food Board, however, comes a sharply contrasting picture of much more restricted availability. Citing the EU Sheepmeat Forecasting Group's production and consumption tonnage predictions, rather than slaughtering estimates, the Irish warn of a short-term tightening for the EU overall and perhaps a more protracted squeeze in the UK. EU output will drop nearly 10% this year, mostly due to UK production tumbling 26%, but consumption is predicted to decline by less than 4%. Although the UK is nevertheless sure to be pushedout of balance by the export ban, the Irish interpretation gives a clue to why this influence may have been exag-gerated: the EU import requirement will rise by about 50,000 tonnes. Perhaps there will be more scope than expected for suppliers including the Irish and the New Zealanders, to switch product between markets in ways likely to take the pressure off prices in Britain. Looking further ahead, the Irish focus on the FMD cull in the UK and its effect on lamb numbers available here later in the year, concluding a squeeze could persist into 2002. {{M/E MEAT }}