Europe's sheep population fell by four per cent last year, according to figures released from the EU's December sheep census.Within the major sheep-rearing countries however, the rate of decline varied greatly.
Since December 2001, sheep numbers have fallen by 2.4 per cent in Spain, 1.3 per cent in France, 1.4 per cent in Greece and 26 per cent in Italy.
The UK's sheep flock actually increased by 2 per cent in 2002 to 24.8 million, although this figure is still 10 per cent below pre-Foot and Mouth Disease levels in 2000.
These five countries contain 85 per cent of Europe's sheep population.
Despite the decline in the EU's total flock numbers, slaughter is forecast to rise this year.
In contrast, the US sheep population is forecast to continue declining in 2003, despite extensive government aid programmes.
The reduction in US lamb supply will be partly made up from imports, which are expected to increase by nearly 2 per cent from last year. This is dramatically slower than the 12.5 per cent growth in 2001 and 11.2 per cent growth in 2002.