I was once told by a talented and well-respected professional spinner that the only reason sheep farmers don’t all utilise their annual wool clip, is because they are too lazy! It’s a somewhat harsh view, given I have never met a lazy farmer.

So why isn’t wool seen as a key product by the majority of British sheep farmers? Wool, with its unique natural properties, is one of the most versatile and historically important materials, which can be used for everything from clothing to insulation. The UK has more breeds of sheep than any other country in the world, but wool has gone from being so valuable that the Speaker of the House of Lords still sits upon a wool sack – symbolic of the historic significance of wool to the wealth of the nation – to a throwaway by-product of the meat industry. British sheep farmers are now paid so little for wool that it rarely covers the cost of shearing, while abattoirs are currently receiving just 10p for a sheep skin – a source of both wool and leather.

This is a short personal view from a small sheep farmer trying to carve a niche for herself in the contracted and struggling market for wool.

Black Welsh Mountain ram

When I switched to Black Welsh Mountain sheep 10 years ago (from Hebrideans which, as an island sheep, really need the sea to contain them!), there was never any question that wool should be a significant part of the business. It seemed counter-intuitive to disregard the very product that our multitude of sheep breeds were developed for in the first place.

Initially, I bought 7 ewes from one breeder (pedigree, but not, as it turned out, very good ones), and a ram, with good lineage, from another. I asked both breeders what they did with the wool and both said it was worthless. Why, then, you might ask, would they keep a traditional breed like this in the first place? It seems that novelty value, winning rosettes and selling to other breeders were the prime motivators.

In the last 10 years I have built up the Black Welsh Mountain flock from the original 8 to over 100. I have recently added a foundation flock of rare breed Portlands, as even I recognise that black wool has its limitations. I have learnt a fair bit about wool along the way and what I have learnt most is that our modern approach to sheep management is not designed to utilise it.

Shearing time

Most farmers don’t value their wool because the price is so low, sheep flocks have become much larger and it’s not easy to process and market wool yourself. As a result, most sheep don’t get sheared. Only a lambswool specialist shears a sheep in its first summer and most sheep don’t reach their second summer. The ones that do are mainly the breeding flock, and they have the poorest quality fleeces. They are sheared for welfare reasons to prevent them getting too hot in summer and to reduce the risk of fly strike.

To keep sheep over the winter and grow them on slowly through spring and beyond shearing time is completely at odds with the modern method of fast-finishing commercial lambs grown as an annual crop. The cost of keeping them over winter and fed year-round, would make it financially unviable. Why would a farmer even consider doing this when the supermarkets want lamb, not hogget or mutton, and there is no apparent value in wool? Exacerbating this financial pressure are the additional costs of sending ‘splitters’ (sheep over a year old) to the abattoir. Since the BSE crisis in the 1990s it has been compulsory to remove the spinal cord of sheep over a year old by splitting the carcase.

Of course, things weren’t always like this and you don’t have to go back to the Middle Ages to find a time when wool, and its associated crafts and skills, was taken seriously as a valuable source of income on an average farm. In her autobiography, Seasons of My Life, hill-farmer Hannah Hauxwell, referring to the first half of the 20th century, says, “the whole family would spin the raw wool and then knit it into stockings, gloves, jumpers and skirts. I do believe that in years gone by, they paid the annual rent for Low Birk Hatt by spinning and knitting.”

In my rural childhood of the 1960s and 70s, knitting was such a standard means of producing clothes and income that for a woman to say she couldn’t knit would be akin to saying she couldn’t read or write. Like most girls, I could knit well before I left primary school and every village shop sold wool. Neither was it considered odd for men to knit, especially in coastal communities – how things have changed in a few short decades.

The development of synthetic fibres, starting in the late 19th century, but only properly becoming marketable in the 1950s, not only changed the clothing industry but also the course of the sheep farming industry. By the 1980s the use of wool (and other natural fibres) crashed as synthetic fabrics, derived from oil, saturated the markets with cheap, quickly produced clothing and other domestic and industrial products. Almost overnight wool, upon which so much of our national wealth had been built, became practically valueless in mainstream markets.

For sheep farmers, the loss in value of wool left them with little alternative but to increase the number of sheep they kept and turn over their lambs as quickly as possible, by slaughtering them much younger, replacing the previously valued and localised slow-grown wool breeds with larger, faster finishing ones that were mainly continental meat breeds. This accelerated a trend that had started when the Industrial Revolution created an increasingly urbanised population in need of cheap, readily available meat.

So why should we believe that the revival of the British wool industry is not only possible but also has an essential role to play in a sustainable future?

There is a vocal minority that would have us believe sheep farming is responsible for many of the woes of the world. They will cite animal cruelty, land degradation, climate change and human health issues amongst the list of crimes of people like me. Yet a lot of UK farmland is unsuited to crop production, with two-thirds under grass for sound agronomic and environmental reasons. Only through grazing animals can we derive food or fibres from it. The failure to differentiate between good and bad practices, and good and bad practitioners, always highlighting worst case scenarios, means a lot is said about the problems of livestock farming, while little is said about the reality of the alternatives.

recent report, commissioned by Friends of the Earth (FOE), states that synthetic fibres in clothing is one of two main sources of micro-plastics entering our watercourses and food chains (the other being tread abrasion on vehicle tyres). Every time you wash your synthetic clothes, hundreds of thousands of microfibres are literally washed down the drain. A study by scientists from the University of California has found that washing a synthetic fleece jacket, for example, puts about a million microfibres (1.7 grams) into the waste water; about 60% of these are trapped in sewage at treatment plants, with much of this being spread on food-producing cropland, while 40% make their way to oceans and end up in the fish we eat. The manufacturing of acrylics, nylons and polyesters for the fashion industry is also responsible for more CO2 emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to a report commissioned by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Yet every vegan website I have looked at describes synthetic clothing as “animal-friendly” or “ethical”. It seems ironic that it was the development of these materials which led to wool becoming devalued, partly contributing to the shift towards intensive lamb production that campaign groups so often criticise. This also highlights the lack of joined-up thinking on the issue – while synthetic materials may not directly result in animals being killed, they indirectly contribute to wide-scale environmental destruction and wildlife deaths through environmental degradation, pollution and biodiversity loss.

To keep faith in the possibilities of wool, hogget, mutton and traditional sheep breeds becoming the sustainable way forward often feels like an uphill struggle, against all the odds. The work is hard, solitary and relentless. The markets are difficult to negotiate and are easily undercut, not only by the mass production of alternative materials, but also by imports from countries where labour is cheap and readily available. Processing options for wool are limited and current outlets typically fall into the ‘niche’ or ‘craft’ categories.

But things are changing. Festivals celebrating and promoting wool, such as Woolfest and Wonderwool Wales, go from strength to strength. In 2010, in recognition of the need to restore the value of wool and, in doing so, revive a more traditional and sustainable approach to sheep farming, HRH The Prince of Wales initiated the Campaign for WoolMutton Renaissance, again initiated by Prince Charles, is supported by many top chefs, and a taste for slow-grown, pasture-fed meat that is locally produced and processed is increasing in popularity. Wool is also finding new markets – being turned into duvets, furniture and coffins, for example. Its fire-retardant qualities make it ideal for insulation and, in the unfortunate event of a fire, smouldering wool lacks the toxic fumes emitted by synthetic lagging.

There is still a long way to go, but I believe there is cause for optimism – a new energy for an old way of sheep farming. Perhaps, if they could find a level playing field, all those ‘lazy’ farmers might join in.