More than a by-product: Resetting the way we think about wool

  • 31.01.2024
  • article
  • Environmental Issues
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • Lifestyle
  • People
  • Julie Baber

Julie Baber, who raises rare breed sheep in Somerset, covers some key discussions from this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference, looking at why we must move beyond the perception of wool as a low-value by-product of the meat industry.

Wool, with its unique natural properties, is one of our most versatile and historically important materials, having a huge range of uses – from clothing to insulation.

Yet, of the 100 million tonnes of fibre consumed worldwide each year, only 1% is wool and 0.001% is UK wool. The vast majority of fibres, around 70%, are made from plastic. Over the last 70 years, the auction price for British wool has dropped from around £16 per kilo to less than £1 per kilo as this wonderful material is replaced with synthetic fibres. As Andrew Hogley, CEO of British Wool, remarked at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), “Plastics are the enemy.”

Andrew was speaking as part of a session at the ORFC focusing on the need for sheep’s fleece to become more than a by-product of the meat industry. Proposed by the SFT’s Megan Perry and Julie Baber of Pigsmoor Farm, the session brought together 100 delegates and a diverse panel of speakers to discuss the catastrophic decline in value of wool – a resource once considered so important to the British economy, that the Speaker of the House of Lords still sits on a sack of it.

Chaired by SFT Policy Director, Lesley Mitchell, the session kicked off with some startling facts and figures from Andrew Hogley, highlighting the extent to which natural fibres have been supplanted by plastics – a particularly concerning trend in view of research highlighting synthetic textiles as the largest known source of marine microplastic pollution.

Christopher Price, CEO of the Rare Breed Survival Trust, then gave a short presentation on the wide variety of UK sheep breeds and how they have adapted to their diverse landscapes over hundreds of years. He went on to talk about the studies being done on greenhouse gases in relation to sheep farming and the potential for wool to be a carbon sink, with around 40% of a sheep’s fleece consisting of carbon.

Jen Hunter of Fernhill Fibre, continued with the theme of greenhouse gas emissions by asserting that we should rephrase carbon offsetting as carbon ‘insetting’ because on her farm “it is staying in the land”.

“I believe sheep are the most efficient land management tool there is,” she says, explaining how, along with her husband, Andrew Wear, she runs up to 6,000 sheep on both their own 160 acres and as contract shepherds on other parts of the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Fernhill Fibre’s sheep are mostly Shetland crossed with Romney and Jen believes their fleece can easily compete with “semi-cloned merinos”. They also run a 200-strong “fibre flock” that consists of the “best of British six”, including Longwools. Jen finds a use for all parts of the fleece and supplies 10 to 12 artisan producers throughout the South West and Wales.

Maria Benjamin came into farming as an artist, joining her partner, John, at Nibthwaite Grange Farm, in a Lake District valley that his family had lived and worked in for 600 years. John’s father had bought their tenanted farm in the 1980s from the proceeds of selling all his cattle.

Maria started up a number of small businesses to add value to the farm overall. These include Lake District Tweed and The Wool Library. Her approach to wool is to keep it local – “people want the provenance; they love the story”. She now takes in fleece from surrounding farms and believes it is not necessary to compete on a world market, preferring to keep work and money in the local economy.

Summing up the session at ORFC, Lesley Mitchell believes the challenges for wool are similar to those for meat. We need localised networks for food and fibre, and we need to consider what we value. Why are we competing on a global scale when we have good markets in the UK for fibres and textiles?

Following the session, there was a practical wool workshop that allowed delegates to handle a variety of British breed fleece and have a go at spinning, felting, weaving, carding, crochet, knitting and pompom making. It was an opportunity to talk and share experiences in a relaxed atmosphere, though the room was a tad small for the number of would-be participants. The steward was no match for the anarchic nature of the workshop though and, regardless of his best efforts to contain it, numerous people spilled out into the passage, spindles and needles in hand.

For those unfamiliar with wool, it was a chance to have a go at something new and to get a feel for the beauty of this underrated product. For the more experienced, it was all about the sense of community as they came together from around the UK. As one participant commented, “It was short, sweet, noisy and chaotic. But that’s where wool craft is great, it’s all about resilience, making do with very little and making something with your hands.”


You can read more about the value of wool and why we should be celebrating it, here.


Featured images courtesy of Victoria Halliday and Chris Todd.

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