Scotland’s Iconic Beef Herd Set to Shrink Further While Flock Size Could Increase

Union’s 2023 Intentions survey points to four per cent fall in beef cows as farmers and crofters keep more ewes

NFU Scotland’s 2023 Intentions Survey, which closed on 10 January, has pointed to further shrinkage in Scotland’s iconic beef sector, with many farmers reducing cow numbers alongside indications that some are replacing them with sheep.

The survey, supported by Quality Meat Scotland, was set up to assess the scale of change that unprecedented input costs and flat-lining output prices are having on business plans across all sectors. 

Analysis of responses to the survey from livestock farmers and crofters points to an average beef herd size reduction of four per cent versus last year, but an average increase in flock size of two per cent.

According to the Scottish Government agricultural census, between 2011 and 2021, there was a 12 per cent decline in the total Scottish beef herd to 413,000 cows.  Over the same period, the Scottish ewe flock has fallen by less than three per cent to 2.57 million ewes in 2021.

The analysis of responses to NFU Scotland’s Intentions Survey indicates that, to improve resilience, livestock farmers and crofters are already reducing fertiliser usage; increasing the amount of home-grown feeds; incorporating nutrient management plans to improve soil fertility and increasingly outwintering stock rather than housing them over the colder months. That highlights how the industry is proactively adapting to and mitigating the impacts of soaring input costs. 

In terms of making a difference, an increase in price at slaughter and retail would be the most helpful for beef and sheep farmers. Respondents are also supportive of an increased marketing drive around Scotch beef and lamb.

Other mechanisms highlighted as being helpful included: Greater clarity from Scottish Government on how future support for beef and sheep producers will be delivered and what conditionality will be attached to payments; developing greater cooperation between producers, and improving access to technology to improve herd/ flock performance and resilience to continue to deliver on food.

Discussions with other farmers, vets and advisors were deemed the best way of gathering information on how to improve their business. On-farm events were noted as helpful and valuable to livestock farmers echoing the NFU Scotland Livestock Committee’s support for the new monitor farm programme. 

Livestock Committee chair Hugh Fraser, a beef and sheep producer from Scaniport, near Inverness said: “The intentions survey provided a great base of evidence particularly for our beef and sheep sectors.  

“For far too long we have anecdotally discussed the decline in beef cow numbers in Scotland. These results highlight the scale and depleting confidence levels of beef-producing members. 

“All livestock businesses are unique in that we are making business decisions which we will not see the returns from for two to three years.  That is why it is imperative that the industry is given support and clarity from the Scottish Government on the future so that we can confidently invest in our farms.  The results highlight how we are a proactive and innovative sector which is willing to adapt to provide high quality, sustainable red meat if given the support and fair returns from the supply chain.

“The Scottish livestock sector must be acknowledged for the critical role it plays in a sustainable healthy diet, supporting domestic food security, and supporting biodiversity. NFUS urges the Scottish Government to bare this in mind when designing future support to ensure beef and sheep farmers can reach their full potential while continuing to deliver high quality food and supporting ambitions around addressing climate and biodiversity.”

Notes for editors


  • 339 respondents to the NFU Scotland Intentions survey were beef farmers or crofters, 96 per cent of whom are in a certification scheme. 
  • Majority of beef farmers (~40 per cent) aspire to maintaining herd sizes.  However due lack of profitability driven by market prices, increasing input costs and lack of clarity on future support, there is little confidence to maintain or increase herd sizes. 26 businesses are planning to cease all together. 
  • Most beef enterprises are already running a tighter culling policy (67 per cent) to improve resilience, as well as selling directly to finishers (49 per cent). Changing management styles (36 per cent) and finishing more cattle (38 per cent) are of interest. Comments highlighted that many are making marginal tweaks to better understand business opportunities and weaknesses. 
  • The following table highlights regional breakdown of average beef herd size (cows) this year versus last year.


  • 290 respondents to the NFU Scotland Intentions survey were sheep farmers or crofters, 89 per cent of whom are in a certification scheme. 
  • Similar to beef, roughly 50 per cent of respondents aspire to maintain their current flock size, with approximately 30 per cent looking to increase sheep numbers in response to a reduction in cow numbers, 10 producers are looking to cease their sheep enterprise. 
  • Sheep businesses are already running tighter culling policies to improve business resilience. Responses also highlight wanting to sell more directly to abattoirs however there is a lack of facilities to do so. 


Contact Bob Carruth on 07788 927675

Author: Bob Carruth

Date Published:

News Article No.: 08/23

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About The Author

Bob Carruth

A dairy farmer’s son, I joined NFU Scotland in 1999 after 13 years as an agricultural journalist. Following spells as a regional manager and policy lead on milk, livestock and animal health and welfare, I became Communications Director in 2008.

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