It’s one of the original bio-based materials, but the future of the wool industry in the UK and Ireland looks bleak as already low prices reach new depths as markets closed because of COVID-19 and manufacturing, construction and consumer demand dried up. Added to this, China, the world’s biggest processor and consumer of wool, shut down its economy. The busiest selling period for wool is between February and May each year so the economic earthquake brought by the Coronavirus has hit this industry particularly hard.
Even before the crisis struck, wool prices had become so depressed they often no longer covered the cost of shearing. The development and growth of synthetic fibres meant that by the 1980’s the use of wool was in decline as oil-derived synthetic textiles overwhelmed the markets with cheap, quickly produced clothing and other domestic and industrial products. We quickly became addicted to fast, cheap fashion and the result has been that most sheep are reared for meat, with wool now considered a sometimes inconvenient by-product.
The financial realities of this situation were made clear in this Facebook post by Irish farmer, Bernard King, who received just €17.75 for 355kg of wool from a Galway wool merchant on the 1st July. Bernard, whose family have worked a 530 hectare farm producing organic Connermara Mountain Lamb for three generations, told me that we “have a natural product with no market”.
Bernard uploaded his payment to Facebook, and it soon was being shared across social media, with some of the replies to it being shared by shepherd and author James Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) on Twitter being particularly telling:
“I’d burn it rather than sell it for that.”
“Sold 202kg of mainly Cheviot fleeces and got 30 Euro. That would hardly sharpen the combs and cutter to shear them.”
“I am looking to build a house next year and REALLY want to use wool insulation – but wool insulation is SOOOO expensive! What aren’t more companies making wool insulation?!?! (Win-Win-Win for everyone!)”
“I used to knit a lot, but stopped because it’s so expensive to make a simple jumper… though maybe, now I write this. I’m part of the problem”
“Wool needs a rebranding, ”eco-fleece” – all natural, insulating, British made, last years, fully repairable, 101 uses and transforms into felt with nothing but hot water only. Get it while you can, roll up, roll up! What’s not to love?!”
The situation that Bernard King encountered is the same across the Irish sea in Wales.
Wyn Evans, NFU Cymru livestock board chairman told Farming UK; “Wool is a bulky product with significant transport costs, and for many the use of shearing contractors is the only option to clip the wool – both are costs that cannot be avoided. With wool value being very low per kilo for many grades, particularly those from the hills, this process now comes at a cost to the business.”
He continued: “On a per head basis this may not be large, but the cumulative costs affects the bottom line of an enterprise, where gross margins are already under pressure.”
Another farmer in Wales, Gerallt Hughes, told Farmers Weekly that he will throw the wool from 574 ewes onto the muck heap due to a slump in demand that has seen prices hit rock bottom. He employed four shearers to clip his sheep, but said it was not worth the cost to then pack and transport it to be sold.
A sorry end for a lot of hard work, love and investment.
Back in Ireland, John Brooks, a farmer and Sheep Chairman for the Irish Cattle and Sheep Association told the Irish Independent, that the demise of the wool industry has resulted in wool remaining both underused and undervalued.
“Wool is an important natural resource yet the wool industry has been completely cast aside. However, there is huge potential to capitalise on a revitalised wool industry and this needs to be given serious consideration. We need to see a concerted effort made to breathe life back into the industry. At a time when low carbon, low waste, biodegradability and renewability are the factors by which products and processes are judged, wool scores high on all.”
Editor’s comment – As a bio-based material wool offers huge advantages being durable, flexible, flame and water resistant plus sustainable, renewable and biodegradable. Varying grades of wool, from different breeds of sheep, range from soft wool which is perfect for use for clothing against the skin, to more coarse fibres which are suited to purposes such as insulation.
Other uses can be in carpet, bedding, insulation and interiors. There’s also other new innovative by-products being developed such as the use of sheep wool pellets as a nitrogen fertilizer as detailed here.
So for those of you reading this and are working in these areas, there has never been a better time to contact your local farmer’s union or cooperative to investigate how wool could work for you. You might be surprised!
If tasty lamb is your thing, then be sure to visit Bernard’s farm website as he is able to supply naturally fed lamb directly to the customer.
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