I spent Yarndale weekend with my Dad up at his house just outside York, where he works as a shepherd looking after a flock of Hebridean sheep established for conservation grazing. In addition to the sheep, he is a highly respected breeder and trainer of working Border Collies or Sheepdogs as you might know them. If you’ve seen One Man and his Dog this is what he does!
He has been training Border Collies for as long as I can remember and I never tire of watching these intelligent dogs work the sheep. Twelve-month old Lou is showing great potential…
Hebrideans are a hardy, primitive breed of sheep and have featured on the blog several times before. They are easy to recognise being of a fairly small but tough build, with dark fleeces ranging in colour from the deepest blue-black through shades of brown and into grey as the sheep grow older and most of the animals will have horns which grow quite large in the rams.
As a knitter and crocheter I look at the sheep and automatically see wool and the potential to build a stash that would keep me busy for a lifetime. And so as we enter Wool Week, I should be really excited about the opportunity to celebrate this magical fibre which at one time formed the backbone of the British economy, but the current value being placed on British clip prices (the cost of a raw fleece) and the prices being paid to the vast majority of farmers for their fleece is heartbreaking.
At first glance you would think things aren’t so bad and that maybe there are still riches to be made from keeping sheep for their woolly coats. A full list of prices paid is available on the British Wool Marketing Board website and as this poster displayed at a recent auction demonstrates you can ‘maximise the value of your wool’. I have to do a fair amount of talking in averages as clips vary from breed to breed, and so to make life easier I am weighing a single fleece at 1 kilogram – some will be more and other will be less. It is also important to note that the Wool Board has the monopoly on buying fleeces from British farmers which is why the prices are governed in such a way.
Earlier this year Dad received a cheque from the Wool Board for approximately 300 fleeces sent to them in 2014. The grand total of the cheque was 94p and represents 10% of the total he hopes to receive, placing a value of £9.40 on the fleeces and averaging out at 3p per fleece. It cost him £1.20 to have each sheep shorn with this cost set to rise to £1.40 next year. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out a loss of £1.17 for each sheep being clipped. According to the Wool Board website Dad could have hoped to achieve approximately 40-50p per fleece or a low estimated total of £120 for the fleeces he sent. Although this still wouldn’t cover the cost of having the flock shorn – something which is vital for their wellbeing – it would have gone further than the £9.40 he did receive.
Whilst the potentially achievable prices displayed on the Wool Board website at first glance seem okay, a farmer of Swaledales is still losing around 60p for every sheep he has clipped and this is without taking into account the cost of transporting the bales of raw fleece to the Wool Board which is an additional cost incurred by the farmer. In addition to this bales are penalised for not being tied with the correct string, fleeces are dumped if damp or too scraggy and the farmer receives nothing for these and it’s unlikely that an explanation will be given as to why the final pay cheque is so low.
Dad has often spoke of sheep farmers burying or burning their fleeces; The latest horror stories include 3000 Swaledale fleeces buried somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, and to illustrate the point further he calls a fellow shepherd who keeps a few Blue Faced Leicester sheep in his flock. So bearing in mind that BFL is a much sought after fleece at the moment – simply ask the knitters – and the price paid for BFL is relatively high owing to the fairly small yield from each animal, I almost cried when I heard the reply to what he had done with his fleeces: “Burnt ’em John, burnt ’em”.
It is a familiar story and one I hear over and over again. How has the state of the British wool industry come to this?
Unless you have made a conscious decision to trace and work with British wool, the vast amount of yarn you find in stores or in your stash will be imported fleece via China, South America and Australia. The traditional British yarn companies such as Rowan, Patons and Sirdar (for example) who all have the perfect opportunity to work with British fleece tend to be retailing yarn spun abroad from fleeces sourced pretty much everywhere apart from Britain. I want to make it clear that I am not saying you must rush out and only buy carefully sourced British wool and only ever knit with this (I currently don’t), but we as knitters and crocheters have a lot of buying power to support sheep farmers and elevate the prices being paid for this incredible fibre to something closer to decent and fair.
As much as I want to support Wool Week and the Campaign for Wool, this darker side of the British wool industry makes me so angry. I really want to see both these campaigns support and promote British wool rather than just wool in general. Wouldn’t it be great to see something similar to the way fleece is treasured, marketed and sold in Gotland but on a much larger scale? With the right approach I don’t think it’s impossible to bring back the golden days of wool production to parts of the country that are crying out for job creation in industries we Brits are really very good at.
And so to the 2015 clip from Dad’s flock: It is currently bagged and tagged, sitting in a dry barn with the occasional fleece being pulled out and used around the estate to protect trees. At the weekend me and Dad took a big step and are embarking on an adventure to have the fleece spun into yarn. It’s very exciting, slightly nerve-wracking, and we’re not entirely sure where it will lead, but we hope you can join us for the journey.
If you are a farmer/shepherd/small holding owner and have any experience dealing with the Wool Board I would love to hear from you. Please use the contact form to send me any information all of which will remain confidential.