As sheep producers are urged to support the last remaining agricultural marketing board, Sue Scott looks at the future of wool.
It keeps our food fresh, our bodies warm, our homes comfortable and dry and decarbonizes our atmosphere and yet farmers are happy to get shot of it for cost.
One of the most versatile, sustainable and abundant of our agricultural products, wool is also one of the most undervalued – a victim of unregulated global markets, currency fluctuations, cheap oil and apathy.
It is a message which resonates with Kristina and Paul Boulden, whose family were farming the Kent Marshes in the early 19th century when Romney sheep were leaving in their thousands by the back door, supplied to European weavers prepared to pay a good price for quality British fibres.
By the time Kristina and Paul were casting around for another income stream from their mixed farm at Aldington in 2008, those same fleeces were fetching less, marginally more than the cost of shearing them.
Kristina says: “We have a commercial flock of 1,000 Romneys. The fleeces weren’t worth very much but we were producing five to six tonnes of wool a year, so wool seemed the obvious choice to diversify into.
“It hasn’t really changed flock management although we don’t over-use the sprays because we now know how difficult it is to get the dye out.”
The one tonne of wool used by the Bouldens’ Romney Marsh Wools this year will be worth twice as much to the farm as each of the remaining tonnes sold through the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB), for whom Paul acts as a regional representative.
Like the rest of the British clip, they could end up anywhere on a global market in which wool, representing less than 4 per cent of textiles, fights hard to compete against man-made fibres and cotton.
“As much as we moan about fleece prices, it’s not all down to the BWMB,” says Kristina, who uses scourers, spinners and weavers across the UK to produce naturally coloured cloth and yarns.
There is also an increasing line of lanolin toiletries, managing all of which led Kristina to give up her full-time job and more recently take on a Hadlow College apprentice.
She is already considering buying-in other native breed fleeces to extend her range of knitting wools and if the business carries on expanding would look to take Romney fleeces from other producers operating under a similar sales exemption with the BWMB.
The last surviving agricultural marketing board in the UK, the board is charged with collecting, grading and marketing every fleece from every flock of more than five sheep, be they in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or the Sussex Weald.
While wool payments to producers have at least covered the cost of shearing in each of the past five years, it is hard to say how much of that is down to the board’s good housekeeping, its support for global initiatives, such as Prince Charles’ Campaign for Wool, or world economics.
Like many farmers, Bob White, who farms a commercial flock of 2,000 North Country and Suffolk cross Mules with 500 ewe lambs, at Turville Park Farm, Henley-on-Thames, Oxon, is glad to see his pile of wool sacks hauled away.
“We produced 3,500kg of wool, bringing in £3,500 to £4,000 in 2015. On a pence per kilo basis that hasn’t changed compared to 15 years ago,” he says.
“But my view of wool is it’s totally a welfare issue. I’m just happy we get enough to pay our shearers because there was a time when we didn’t.
“We have seen a change in the way wool is used,” says Bridget Kelly, the campaign’s head of interior textiles, which will be championing British carpet makers – the biggest consumers of British wool – at the new Wool Flooring Show at Stamford Bridge this week.
“As the campaign has grown in profile, there’s better understanding of wool with the consumer. It’s not where we would like it to be yet, but it’s better,” she says.
“We do know there’s real growth in the knitting and home crafts sector, and in fabrics, key brands tell us where they had one wool range when we started, now they have 12.”
But while the clients of Savile Row tailors, with direct access to tweed mills in remote Scottish islands, will happily pay thousands for timeless designs in British wool which has been cleaned in spring water of unimpeachable provenance, the high street is less discerning.
Which perhaps points to farmers focusing on unexpected but potentially significant markets or the most local and accessible to help cushion their bottom line.
In Sussex, for instance, start-up company Southdowns Yarns is forging relationships with producers in the National Park, including Nepcote Estate, to supply it with fleeces to turn into geo-specific wools, while in Hampshire, Scotland Farm uses the same breed to fill luxury duvets.
Further afield, WoolCool, an innovative packaging company which grew out of a project developing sustainable wool-lined cool boxes for National Trust tenants selling meat off the farm, got through half a million fleeces last year and is doubling production year-on-year.
Founder Angela Morris, who is now taking the company into the pharmaceutical sector where it aims to save lives with a cool chain wool packaging solution which stops up to 50 per cent of vaccines being spoiled in transport, says: “We won’t replace all the polystyrene in the world, but we’ll have a good go at it.”
Another British company has used more than five-million kilos of coarse upland wool to insulate UK properties with a natural, hydroscopic Thermafleece. It performs 10 per cent better than fiberglass, but, despite energy saving campaigns, it is hard to find unless you look for it. SolidWool meanwhile uses British wool mixed with bioresin to produce a functional alternative to fiberglass furniture.
Kristina never lost her faith in British wool, but she would like others, including the Government, to rediscover theirs.
“I hope more farmers will look at other incomes they can generate from wool and I wish the Government would consider wool more as an area to invest in.
“There are few products you can say are truly natural sustainable and so flexible it can be used from slug pellets to fashion, insulation to packaging and even coffins. But wool is one of them.”