With the sheep industry under pressure with people eating less lamb and Brexit threatening exports to the continent, Alex Black spoke with the innovative farmers looking to put British wool back on the map
Sheep farmers need to stop being so ‘British’ and start shouting about the benefits of British Wool, as the industry comes under pressure from declining lamb consumption and Brexit.
While sheep farmers historically made their money from wool, many farmers now treat it simply as a by-product of producing meat. But some farmers have been cashing in and using it to create artisan products.
Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association (NSA) chief executive, said it was becoming an increasingly polarised market.
“On one side, it is not a very exciting market at all. We are dealing in a low value commodity market. But the other side is high value and it is growing,” he said.
“It is interesting stuff, almost artisan wool, with some designers who are really getting into British wool products.”
Karen Griffiths, who owns Griffiths Mill with her husband David in Derbyshire, has called on the industry to ‘turn it around’ and put British wool back at centre stage before the country loses the skills it needs.
The couple were in the legal profession. But they decided to get ‘out of the rat race’ following the death of Mr Griffith’s oldest son on Christmas Day 12 years ago.
The couple purchased a smallholding, alongside some angora goats. Mrs Griffiths had learnt to knit from her grandmother who had worked in a woollen mill.
With the woollen mills closed down, they decided to purchase some equipment and process their own products. They have now exported wool as far as Australia, the US and around Europe.
“The important thing is it is grown in Britain, it is produced in Britain,” she said.
“But first of all we have to be proud of it and we have to shout about it. If we do not, the rest of the world is not going to listen.”
And Welsh designer Clare Johns has managed to combine her two passions, farming and fashion, by producing wool products using fleece from her own flock.
While shearing sheep, she decided she wanted to produce something with the wool rather than discarding it.
“We got given fleece by farmers who do not do anything with it and were really surprised with the quality. Why does it have to discarded, why not make a fantastic piece?
“It has been about 18 months, I did London fashion week and since then it has just gone off,” she said.
Mrs Johns said there were many benefits to using wool in clothing as it was sustainable, high quality and durable and there was a real demand for it.
“It is quite surprising the amount of people who will pay,” she said.
“They understand the work that goes into it and know it is going to be everlasting.”
Mrs Johns said she had got a great response from people at the shows she had attended.
“I said touch it, and said it does not have to be Merino. Many people are using Ryeland wool and I want to try and use a selection,” she said.
“I also want to try and give a fair price to the farmers.”
A revival of wool could also provide a boost for native and rare breeds. For UK Wool Week, running from October 7 to 22, Mr and Mrs Griffiths have been touring around the country showcasing local sheep breeds in cities including London, Glasgow, Norwich and Exeter.
Mrs Griffiths said: “British wool is fabulous because of the variety.
“By no means am I saying every fleece is suitable for everything, but everything we want to put wool to, we have a breed that suits that purpose.
“We should be proud of it. We also have such a variety in natural colours.”
Mr Griffiths added: “I am selling Boreway yarn to the US. For Wensleydale fleece I have people from Canada coming over here looking to buy 3 kilos.”
While there has been a lot of emphasis on utilising the whole carcase for meat, David said farmers needed to make sure they considered the wool as part of the product too.
“If you do not regard wool and skin as part of the product, you are wasting part of that product,” he said.
Mrs Johns agreed highlighting there were three avenues of making money from her flock, including both wool and meat.
“We have got three by-products including skins as well, another dying trade.”
And for any farmers or designers who were considering getting involved in British Wool products, Mrs Johns advised them to simply ‘have a go’.