Why the lamb you bought for Easter is probably not spring lamb

There are reasons why lamb is so expensive in a country where so many sheep are farmed

My butcher is not selling spring lamb at Easter. Why is that?

Some butchers are not stocking Irish spring lamb because they would have to charge customers more than €100 for a leg of lamb to cover their costs. There are reasons why lamb is so expensive in a country where we farm so many sheep.

If lamb is so expensive, why are there legs of “Spring Lamb” in supermarkets now priced at under €20?

These legs of lamb are selling at a loss; it’s a well-known strategy to attract new customers in the doors. Supermarkets also use loss-leading to sell vegetables at very low prices. Once customers are in the shop, the supermarket makes up the loss on products with much higher margin elsewhere in the store. Loss leading is controversial and is considered predatory by farmers and food producers.

Why is this year different?

The end of Ramadan feast known as Eid al-Fitr is just 10 days after Easter, so demand for lamb is high for both family dinners on Easter Sunday and for Muslim customers celebrating Eid in Ireland, the UK and Europe. More than 80 per cent of Irish lamb is exported – if you are a butcher or retailer in Ireland, you have to compete with European buyers paying high prices to get hold of spring lamb. In many cases butchers are not stocking it or will stock less of it than previous years.

What exactly is spring lamb?

Spring lamb is born in the December of the previous year to be ready for the Easter and early summer market. It is killed at between three and five months old and is prized for its slightly pink meat with a velvety texture. These lambs are reared mostly indoors over the winter months on milk and animal feed, so it’s expensive to produce, especially as animal feed prices and energy costs have risen greatly in recent years.


Contrary to the image of little baby lambs, spring lamb in Ireland is quite heavy when killed – about 35kg. Right now in butchers and supermarkets you will see “Spring Lamb” and “Irish Lamb” for sale, the latter being hogget.

What is hogget?

Hogget are lambs older than a year. In Ireland what is labelled as lamb is often hogget. “Lamb” is not a protected term such as the word “organic” which has strict legal definitions. Like lamb, hogget is either male or female and the eating quality is still good. Its meat is darker than spring lamb, as the animal is maturing. Some argue it has more flavour as hoggets have been on grass for much longer.

What is mutton?

Mutton are sheep older than three. In Ireland these are mostly ewes traded into the meat plants as “cull ewes”. They are culled because they don’t go into lamb, have traits you don’t want to breed from such as lameness or they can’t feed themselves because of teeth problems. These are called “broken mouthed ewes” and this can occur from the age of five. Nevertheless, some ewes will live long lives as mothers and can have seven or more lambs through their lifetime.

Many chefs say that if cooked slowly, mutton has better flavour than lamb. Across North Africa and the Middle East, mutton is cooked in traditional dishes such as tagines with fantastic taste and eating quality.

What is the best lamb to buy right now?

At the top of the range is organic “single estate” lamb from a particular farm, such as Kilmullen Farm lamb in Wicklow, where herds are small in numbers but high in quality. Or lamb from a specific region such as Comeragh Mountain Lamb where small producers concentrate on having lambs outdoors on good grass and mixed swards to add flavour for as long as possible. Mixed swards is grazing that contains clovers, grasses, brassicas and herbs. These plants not only add flavour to the meat but are a more sustainable type of farming. The plants in mixed swards add nitrogen to the soil and thus the farm requires less fertiliser.

The top priced lamb in Ireland is organic lamb, which is farmed without any fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides on the land. It has a lower stocking rate in fields to encourage more biodiversity on farms and will be the most expensive lamb of all to buy.