Once a major business, English wool is now a wasted opportunity – the industry needs a rethink, says Andrew Livingston
Farm life is built around regular tasks – whether they’re daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal or annual. In the world of sheep farming there is one summer task that is seen as a cost and a hindrance, but which, once upon a time, provided the main income from the flock – shearing.
Shearing sheep is vital to ensure the welfare of the animal –removing their thick winter coats keeps them cool and reduces the risk of parasites and disease that can fester on faeces left on their coats.
Wool became an important commodity once farmers realised that the material could be spun to make clothes. Shearing is believed to have started around 3,500 BC and is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament (Genesis 31:19 “When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods …”).
In 1276, Florentine merchants agreed to buy 62 sacks of wool for 697 and a half marks from the Cistercian monks at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, on condition it came “without clack, lok, cot and breech wool or black grey or inferior fleece and without pelt wool”. Clacked wool had the marks cut off, to avoid paying duties as it weighed less (duties were levied on wool including the coloured marks). Lok was probably daggy wool – wool from the sheep’s rear end with poo on. Cot was coated (tangled) and breech the low quality stuff from the haunches. That black or grey were undesirable colours probably implies this was destined to be dyed. And finally, pelt wool is the wool from dead sheep – which the unscrupulous might mix in to make up the weight. The monks were contracted to sort and weigh the wool and deliver at Clifton 14 to 17 sacks a year for the Florence trade. Each sack was 26 stones (364lb of wool).
The Flemish wool industry had such an appetite for English wool that Richard I’s ransom was raised by confiscating the wool clip of the Cisterican monks – Henry VIII wasn’t the first king to rob the monks!
John Barton, a 15th-century wool merchant of Holme-by-Newark, Nottinghamshire, had a stained glass window placed in his parish church: ‘‘I thank God, and ever shall, it is the shepe hath paid for all …”
A loss of 75p per sheep
In the 19th century, man-made fibres could be easily mass-produced and became a cheaper alternative to wool. They had the additional benefit of being more durable, easier to maintain and more readily available.
The rapid expansion in production and use of man-made fibres saw an equal and opposite reaction in the plummeting profits in the wool trade.
The price of wool is now so low that it no longer even covers the cost of shearing, let alone making an income for the farmer. Shearers typically charge £1.50 per sheep, with their 2 kilos of wool (on average) selling for around 75p.
So what is the answer? At the moment, the price of wool is actually deemed at a high as the price of wool is inextricably linked with the price of crude oil, which is required in the production of man-made fibres. If the cost of those man-made fibres goes up, so do the alternative choices.
The British Wool board, whose job it is to effectively market wool so that farmers can get a decent return, needs to start working harder for sheep farmers. Currently, British Wool sells wool for its members, but will only handle pure breeds’ fleeces.
Some farmers have been proactive in treating and selling their wool. Rampisham Hill Farm, in Hooke, where I grew up, began treating and spinning their wool to sell themselves. Today, they buy fleeces from other Dorset shepherds to meet their orders.
Sheep’s wool is also among the top insulating materials for the contruction trade in terms of sustainability. Sheep are shorn every year (some twice) and the wool just keeps growing back! As a raw material, wool is abundant, continuously renewable and locally produced in Britain. It lasts for decades and at the end of its life can simply be composted, unlike oil-based insulation. To manufacture plastic insulation in the first place you need oil, chemicals and lots of energy.
Another innovative use of sheep’s fleeces in recent years is as eco-friendly thermal insulating packaging. WoolCool makes this by combining two fleeces on the inside of a box to keep produce cool for up to 72 hours.The fleeces can then be recycled for various roles such as food for roses and protecting plants and flowers from frost.
Unfortunately, not all farmers have the time or resources to treat their fleeces to obtain optimum profitability – 1,000 years later we still pay less for daggy wool.
Wool is currently a wasted resource; somewhere out there there is an idea that will save the wool industry and make someone a lot of money.
I’ve got my own thinking cap on for that big idea …
Woollen thinking caps maybe?
Sponsored by Trethowans – Law as it should be