The combined benefits of a high crude protein concentration, and possible protein protection and growth-promoting properties, make forage legumes potentially attractive as a natural means of increasing liveweight gain and time to slaughter of lambs in lamb finishing systems. An experiment was conducted to compare the production performance and meat quality of grazing lambs finished on red clover (Trifolium pratense), lucerne (Medicago sativa) or perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) swards. Replicate (n = 2) swards of red clover, lucerne and perennial ryegrass were rotationally grazed by ten ram lambs and ten ewe lambs from weaning until selection for slaughter at UK fat class 3L. Lambs grazing the red clover sward had a significantly higher liveweight gain and required significantly fewer days to slaughter than lambs grazing the lucerne sward (305 g d−1 vs. 243 g d−1; 38 d vs. 50 d), which in turn had a higher liveweight gain and required fewer days to slaughter than lambs grazing the perennial ryegrass sward (184 g d−1; 66 d). Lambs grazing the red clover and lucerne swards had significantly higher herbage intakes than those grazing the perennial ryegrass sward (2·06, 1·72 and 1·16 kg DM d−1 respectively), but in vivo digestibility of herbage was similar. Lambs grazing the red clover and lucerne swards also had significantly higher serum urea concentrations than those grazing ryegrass (12·5, 11·1 and 6·2 mmol L−1 respectively). Killing-out percentage was significantly higher for lambs grazing the red clover sward than for lambs grazing the perennial ryegrass sward (48% vs. 46%). There were no significant effects of finishing system on meat flavour, but meat from lambs finished on the lucerne sward was oxidatively less stable than that from lambs finished on the perennial ryegrass sward. Grazing the forage legume swards significantly increased the proportion of linoleic and linolenic acid in muscle tissue, and therefore the proportion of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids (0·19, 0·16 and 0·12 for the red clover, lucerne and perennial ryegrass swards respectively). However, the n−6/n−3 ratio was significantly lower for the muscle of lambs grazing the perennial ryegrass sward compared with those grazing the forage legume swards (1·13, 1·08 and 0·98 for the red clover, lucerne and perennial ryegrass swards respectively). The results indicate that by grazing lambs on forage legume swards it is possible to increase individual lamb performance without compromising meat quality.