Lamb prices put spring in the step of sheep farmersHealthy PRICE: Isobel and Eilish Conachy with Timmy, a two-day-old lamb, on their farm at Corderry, Knockbridge, Co Louth
A huge rise in the price of lamb has pushed the Sunday lunch staple of a roast leg to luxury status. And it's the massive demand from the Muslim community for top-quality, grass-fed lamb that is keeping prices high across the continent.
The surge in the prices of lamb and sheep meat is leading many dedicated beef farmers here to take a gamble on raising sheep -- though beef prices are also at a premium in what has generally been a good year for Irish farmers.
According to Gabriel Gilmartin, president of the Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA), the rapid increase in lamb prices is down to simple economics; Irish sheep farmers are currently unable to meet the increase in demand for lamb.
"It's all to do with the availability of lamb, supply and demand," he said.
One of the major factors in this demand is the growth in Europe's Muslim population. Muslims are prohibited by the Koran from eating any pork products and although there is no prohibition against eating beef, they are primarily consumers of lamb and goat meat.
The current Irish scarcity has been compounded by the fact that many Irish people left the sheep farming industry in recent years to work in construction. But this trend is now reversing.
"There are an awful lot of people, particularly the young people, who were involved in construction and maybe their parents had a farm at home. Those people are all getting into sheep now," said Mr Gilmartin.
"Some of them in a small way, some of them in a big way. It's an alternative for them. They see a future in it and hopefully there is a future in it for them, rather than them having to emigrate."
Currently, a sheep farmer will earn in the region of €120 to €125 for lambs for export and about €10 more for lambs destined for the Irish market.
"For years, there was absolutely nothing, zero," Mr Gilmartin revealed, "that's why everybody got out of sheep. They were a headache. They were costing a lot of money to keep, there was an awful lot of labour and work involved and very high overheads, but in the last nine of 10 months in particular, the return has been very good."
Mr Gilmartin is calling on the Government to increase its support to the industry.
"It's creating a lot of jobs at the moment and will create and awful lot more," he said.
"But there has to be government support there for people getting into sheep farming. They need government and EU support and if they get that support, people are going to get the confidence in the industry, and it will drive it forward. It'll get young people off the dole."
Last week, a leg of Irish lamb in Tesco cost €12.99 per kg and Irish lamb loin chops cost €18.99 a kilo. In Dunnes Stores, a leg of Irish lamb was priced at €9.29 per kg and Irish lamb loin chops per kg were €15.99. In Lidl, a New Zealand-sourced leg of lamb cost €8.99 per kg and its Irish Lamb loin chops were priced at €16.19 a kilo.