‘I have temporary work in a care home and the hours are very long. I’m looking for fleece to try and get my mojo back!’

So said the first ever customer in my first tentative attempts to sell raw Portland and Black Welsh Mountain wool direct to the spinner and craftsperson.

In a normal year, I would hand spin what took my fancy, send the best to Halifax Spinning Mill to be professionally spun into knitting wool and pack off the rest to one of the big commercial merchants. The really poor-quality wool (usually from ewes that have had it trampled on by their lambs into felted suits of armour) would get composted, along with the dag-ends.

This year, however, as everybody knows, is not a normal year. Many businesses and industries have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Wool is no exception.

Take even a cursory look at any current commentary on sheep farming and you will be unable to avoid the heartfelt stress and anxiety of an often-precarious industry dragged to an all-time low. Welsh hill-farmer, Gareth Wyn Jones, for example, describes the situation as ‘very heart-breaking’, in his Facebook post, ‘True cost of wool’ (1 July, 2020). Waving his arm towards the piled woolsacks containing the clip of 1,200 sheep, he explains, ‘It looks like we will be getting around about 20 pence per fleece for our wool,’ while, ‘the shearers will be having more than a pound each.’

It should be said that those shearers work very hard for their pounds. The hours are long, the pace relentless, requiring a great deal of physical and psychological stamina. While some farmers have large open-sided sheds to work in, many, like me, are at the mercy of the weather. Even light rain disrupts an already arduous task and high temperatures make the process exhausting for all concerned. Shearers and their accompanying wool rollers are highly skilled and take a great deal of pride in the care of their sheep and of the end product.

The problem is not that the shearer charges too much but that the fleece, this ‘truly amazing product’ as Gareth Wyn Jones calls it in his post, is drastically under-valued. Even in a normal year the price of an average wool-clip rarely does more than cover the cost of shearing and is seen by most farmers as an animal welfare necessity rather than a potential source of income.

Portland fleece

This year, COVID-19 forced the global market for cross-bred wool to shut and British Wool had a third of last year’s 27 million kilos still unsold before the 2020 shearing season started. Consequently, they are paying an average of 32p per kilo, with mountain or coloured wool as low as 15p or less. Other merchants, such as Texacloth and Laurence Pierce, are in the same position, with Vincent Pierce commenting on Farming Forum UK that ‘markets are non-existent at the moment’. He goes on to say that, ‘it is a shame to see the wool business as a waste disposal business’, and that, ‘We must think outside the box and come up with new uses to take up large volumes of our wools.’

Wool has been seen as a by-product of the meat industry for over three-quarters of a century and herein, I believe, lies the problem. I have written before on how the development of cheap synthetics conspired with a move away from slow grown hogget and mutton to pull the proverbial rug from under a once rich industry. I explained why this is not a sustainable position for sheep farmers, for the wool market, for food production or, ultimately, for the planet.

If the current crisis does one positive thing, it should be that we, as sheep farmers great and small, take a long hard look at ourselves and think outside that box, or as one respondent to Vincent Pierce’s comment put it, ‘throw that damn box away and start thinking anew’.

There are those, of course, who are already thinking in the round.

Lynne Peachey of Fairview Shetlands in Gloucestershire, for example, is a small producer of top-quality wool. She charges around £25 each for a raw fleece and runs a waiting list, selling all she wants “straight from the sheep’s back” in May. She also supplies “two summer lamb” – older than the usual age – to very local customers, using an abattoir a few minutes away. She is proud of the full provenance that she can give to her sheep.

By contrast, Fernhill Farm, in the Mendip Hills, is a somewhat larger concern with 3,000 Shetland cross sheep, ‘selectively bred for fine colourful fibre, mature meat qualities, hardiness and their ability to restore biodiversity when continually grazing in larger nomadic style flocks’.

What Fairview Shetlands and Fernhill Farm have in common is the understanding that a large sheep meat industry with wool as a worthless by-product cannot endure. As excessive numbers of sheep degrade our hills, and micro-plastics, much of it from washing synthetic clothes, pollute our water courses, seas and even our bodies, surely a reduced stocking density combined with a resurgence of natural fibre and local provenance is the way forward?

For this to happen, there has to be a change in the mindset that wool is a worthless product, along with government support, not just for ‘this amazing product’ but for all the associated businesses and services that make the sustainable rearing of sheep possible. Where for instance would it leave Fairview Shetlands if Lynne Peachey’s local abattoir were to close?

As it stands, British Wool cannot even access the government’s guaranteed loan scheme, set up to assist businesses through the pandemic because, despite ‘repeated representations’, the government refuses to see it as a private sector business. Neither has it been willing to offer any equivalent financing directly.

COVID-19 has highlighted the weaknesses in many businesses and the potential dangers of the reliance on vast global trade networks. Once the bulk of this year’s wool clip has been safely stored with that of last year’s, or destroyed by those farmers who have given way to anger and despondency, we need, collectively and individually, to plan a strategy that will sustain us through future crises. Ultimately, we need less sheep that are worth more.

My new customer has invented a new word, ‘mindwoolness’, because ‘mindfulness’ ‘doesn’t quite capture all that’s good about being immersed in wool’. She wonders if ‘there is actually something in the fleece, some chemical that it gives off that just makes you feel better, like getting a serotonin boost from the sun’. I bet nobody ever said that about nylon!