Easter lamb: Should you buy NZ lamb?

Roast leg of lamb

Easter is a traditional time for eating lamb, but with the first of the new season's produce available, should you choose New Zealand or British lamb?

John Mabb is UK market manager of New Zealand Lamb and he has no doubt about his product.

"All New Zealand Lamb is naturally reared on green open pastures, which leads to its world renowned flavour, being succulent, nutritious and tender," he explains.

New Zealand lamb is mostly shipped to Europe by boat which takes 3-4 weeks but that improves the quality says Mabb. "For chilled lamb, this time is used to age the meat and tenderise it."

Ways to enjoy lamb:

Lamb Madras

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Chef Peter Gordon is a New Zealander who has become a famous face on the British culinary scene. He had a pet lamb as a child (which was eventually eaten) and is now promoting NZ lamb to British consumers.

"The growing and production of NZ Lamb is very sustainable, so whilst it may be from the other side of the world, it's very environmentally friendly," says Gordon.

But he does not feel that cooks have to decide whether it is better to buy locally produced meat. In fact he advocates buying lamb from both parts of the world.

"Seasonal food is very important to me and in the UK we have opposite seasons to New Zealand, therefore fresh New Zealand Lamb is available from January until June, filling in the months when British Lamb isn't available," he explains.

Much early British lamb is reared indoors due to the cold winter months. Gordon believes British lamb is best enjoyed later in the season, when there is the grass to get ewes milking, and for lambs to feast on.

Most British lamb is reared on open pastures, and knowing its provenance helps attract local interest and top prices.

Farmer tagging lamb Lambs eaten in spring tend to have been born in the past year

Roly Puzey, a lamb farmer on Little Wittenham Farm in Oxfordshire, says he sells his meat directly to consumers, setting his own price.

"We are competitive, but we believe we can ask for a premium, as we have something special and that's what people are prepared to pay for, as opposed to buying blindly in supermarkets," he says.

Make the most of mutton:

Mutton graphic

Lamb: Lamb sold in April may have been born in January but will not be grass-fed, or will have been overwintered. Early season lamb is very tender. Technically a lamb is an animal up to a year old.

Hogget: Animals between one and one and two years old are known as hogget or old-season lamb. They develop a strong flavour.

Mutton: The meat of sheep older than two years. The majority of mutton comes from breeding animals that have reached the end of their productive contribution to the flock.

Know how to cook your lamb cuts

"When people buy our lamb it's what they are buying in to, how it's reared, people like to buy into the ethos of the farm. (They want to know) what's happening on the farm, how are the sheep... people value that."

It might cost more, but consumers can reap the benefits, as the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association says there has been increasing evidence of the benefits of pasture raised and grass-fed meat and dairy.

"Grass-fed meat tends to be lower in total fat and also has higher levels of "good fats" such as Omega 3. Milk and meat from grass-fed animals has higher vitamin levels - particularly vitamin E," it says.

Sheep were domesticated before 6500 BC and valued for their wool and milk, as well as their meat. Over time it has become a huge industry.

New Zealand Lamb has been imported to the UK for 130 years.

UK consumption of domestic mutton and lamb hit a post-war peak in the early 60s, when consumption was 11.5kg per capita, however by 2011 it had fallen to 4.6kg.

But farmers both in the UK and NZ have had a tough few years, with bad weather in both countries and lower yields affecting production and low prices for livestock.

New Zealand sheep farmers, like their European counterparts, "are struggling with unsustainable returns for lamb" says Beef and Lamb New Zealand chairman Mike Petersen.

Mr Petersen says imported lamb is not the reason for depressed market prices in the UK, but wants to see stronger prices for both countries' imports and exports.

Paul Heyhoe, a senior analyst at EBLEX, a division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, says the very difficult winter in the UK last year meant lamb weights dropped as they weren't able to feed on much grass, resulting in lower prices, as they are sold per kilo.

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"We've had horrible weather for the best part of 18 months, and farmers have had a difficult time of it. People have had to buy in a lot more feed, fuel and fertiliser prices have gone up, lamb prices are under pressure, costs are up and animals are lighter," he says.

Jimmy Bell, a butcher and farmer from East Wingates Farm Lamb in Northumberland says the effects of feeding lambs indoors rather than on grass can be seen in their weights.

"We haven't had to cut any fat off the lambs when butchering. When the grass is deferred (by snow) and you have to feed them a lot more on concentrate, and costs are so high."

Despite this, Paul Heyhoe says retail prices haven't really risen, as "we didn't see them fall enough when farm gate prices did (at the end of 2012) to make an impact".

At Easter supermarkets often sell "better than half price lamb", he says, and with 75% of lamb sold by supermarkets, and only 11% by butchers, this means retail prices could seem low. But it is the farmers who may suffer.

"If there's a surplus, supermarkets run meat as a loss loser to get people in to the store," explains Jimmy Bell.

"I set my price at the beginning of the season and know I will get a certain price for it. But farmers who sell their meat to them (mostly live weight), if the supermarkets switch to buying at dead weight, they can end up dumping it."

Lambs and ewes Getting sheep out in the fields to eat grass is crucial in spring

It is hoped things could be looking up for British farmers. "We always see a really big uplift at Easter - and this year it is two weeks early," Paul Heyhoe says.

However the early Easter has been bad news for NZ farmers, who rely on a later Easter to sell to the UK.

Wherever you buy it from, Peter Gordon says in the kitchen, lamb cuts can be beautifully versatile.

"The prime cuts such as loin, fillet, rump are very tender and are lovely eaten medium rare to medium," he says.

"The shoulders, neck and legs are really tasty as they're working muscles, and these benefit from being cooked medium through to medium well. Shoulders can be slowly braised over a few hours and will give you the most delicious meal.

"I love cooking it with Mediterranean flavours like rosemary, garlic, lemon and thyme, or Indian spices like cumin, ginger and turmeric.

"It's also fabulous cooked with Thai coconut and chilli style curries. Thinly sliced and tossed in salads with cherry tomatoes, feta and fresh mint works a treat too," he says.

Now that lambing season is upon us, farmers are more likely to be in their fields than the kitchen. "At the minute with all this snow, people are losing lambs left, right and centre," says Jimmy Bell.

"And with no grass on the fields yet, the ewes want a fresh bit of grass to start them off milking.

"We need to get the snow off, need grass out and lambs out."

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