Shearing and Wool

You’d be surprised how many intelligent and otherwise well-informed people think that shearing a sheep means removing its skin too. So the next time you see a shaven-headed young man, ponder this. And the martyrdom of St. Bartholomew too.

We’ve just completed our shearing. Harton’s skilled regular shearer came yesterday, but we amateurs had already been forced to take emergency preventative measures by shearing away selected bits of fleece where maggots had taken up residence due to a flystrike. An unusual set of weather conditions caused an explosion of the fly population at a time of year when every shepherd is hyper-vigilant for the welfare of his flock. In this morning’s cold dry wind the newly shorn ewes delight in their unencumbered freedom.

Unusual weather and unusual circumstances seem to be characteristic of 2020. Covid-19’s shadow has fallen on absolutely everything, including wool. Fortunately, in the south-west, we have an ample supply of locally trained and based shearers, but lockdown prevented the arrival of many of the normal NZ teams needed in the north. But, manpower shortage aside, the biggest impact has been on the price paid to producers for their fleeces. Like many other commodities, wool operates in a global market, where China is a major purchaser of British output. This market has been closed since February and is only now just beginning to re-open slowly.

So what is the chain of events that links each farmer/supplier to worldwide demand? After shearing, fleeces go for grading to a British Wool depot. British Wool (or the Wool Board, as it was then known) was established by statute in 1950 to put a bottom in the value of wool, and the subsidy persisted till 1992 when the price became subject to the fluctuations of international trade. British Wool is owned by us the producers, not the government or shareholders. Fleece is graded according to characteristics defined by breed, staple length and colour, and condition – no mean feat when the UK has 60 plus distinct breeds and innumerable crosses giving rise to 118 grades of adult fleece alone. In manufacturing, different processes require different specification of raw materials, for example, carpets as opposed to fine knitwear. After grading, 8 tonne lots are offered at auctions throughout the bidding year, which normally ends in May. Each year, the farmer’s payment, which is triggered when he makes his delivery, consists of two parts. One is retrospective and is the balance of payment for his output over the last season. The other is a proportion of what the grade is anticipated to fetch during the coming year’s auctions. The problem in this pandemic year is that the markets had already closed whilst there was still an overhang from the previous year’s 2019/20 production. Future demand has yet to gather momentum, thus the 2020 price is unpredictable. The end result is that farmers will receive an average of 32p per kg for the 19/20 clip (with the possibility of a later top-up), but no advance payment for the 20/21 clip. Instead, full payment for this latter will be made on May 21.

British Wool is duty-bound by legislation to accept all types of wool whatever its condition, even flood-damaged. As you may imagine though, the poor price has attracted much criticism from farmers whose grandfathers remember subsidies, and when wool used to pay the rent. Some are unable or unwilling to wait for future payment, or maybe cannot store fleeces for a year, or perhaps they calculate the cost of delivery to the depot is uneconomic. Consequently, there are many pictures on social media of composting or burning fleeces. Bearing in mind that shearing costs around £2 per head for a 3kg fleece, and that shearing is an ovine welfare issue unless you have self-shedding primitive or recent hybrid sheep, you will understand that despair, frustration and a negative view are welfare issues for humans too. Fortunately, though the threat of a Brexit lamb price nosedive is on the horizon, at present lamb prices are holding up, which is small compensation for low returns on wool.

We should be treasuring our natural resources, especially the renewable ones such as wool. This fantastically versatile fibre is made from grass – yes, by sheep eating pasture and yielding a fibre. Those involved in environmental campaigns immediately prior to Covid-19 had begun to realise that the pollution caused by synthetic microfibres was damaging even the remotest parts of the earth such as the Arctic or the Mariana Trench. What better contribution to safeguarding our future than by using more wool in our clothing, bedding, carpets, upholstery, insulation and garden products, and in so doing to protect livelihoods as well.

Buy wool, support farmers, save the planet!

It was the author’s responsibility to roll and pack the fleeces.