Sheep shearing: low wool prices

Sheep shearing, or clipping as we call it locally, is an extended family job here at Low Sizergh Farm. Farmer Richard’s son, Matthew, is the family’s nominated shearer and they share the work with Richard’s brother-in-law. His purpose-built trailer accommodates three shearers and helps control the flow of sheep. It makes shorter work of shearing his 600-strong flock and the smaller flock of 120 Mules, Lleyns and Highlanders.

Richard was about 20 when he learned to shear during his time working in the Herefordshire Welsh Borders. He vividly remembers the massive quantities of food and homemade cider involved. The cider was enjoyed at the end of the task but also during the day – watered down with lemonade for obvious reasons!

Clipping is a time-consuming task. It can take anywhere from a couple to five minutes per animal, depending on its size – and the speed of the shearer (possibly related to flexibility and age too!). Yet, historically, it was all done with hand clippers. The style was different too, with the sheep sat on a bench or “creel”.

It’s a job that marks a key point in the shepherd’s calendar along with lambing, weaning (spaining) and mating (tupping). Some shepherds, who house their sheep during the winter, also do a winter shear as it gives the sheep more space. When turned out with their lambs, winter-shorn sheep are more likely to seek shelter as they feel the cold more. The lambs (also not so woolly) benefit from their mother’s instinct to avoid the worst ravages of the weather.

Fortunately, Covid-19 hasn’t disrupted the task itself this year. All of the work is outside and so the risks are low. However, it has led to changes in the market with the wool price from last year nearly halving. At Low Sizergh Farm, we now have the possibility of receiving a small premium on our fleeces as they’re organic, but the job of shearing didn’t stand much economic analysis even before this year’s price cuts. We may just break even at £2.50 per fleece.

Our fleeces are sold to British Wool. The wool sacks, or sheets as they are known, hold around 35 fleeces. From the local collection point at Cowen Bridge they go to Bradford for grading, which decides the price paid. The grading system categorises wool based upon both its style and characteristics. The style of wool is generally determined by its staple length, crimp, fineness, handle and lustre. Our fleeces are mainly Medium and Mule grade.

It was the advent of synthetic materials in the 20th century that led to the long downward trajectory of wool’s value over many decades. Cheaper fabrics, often made using fossil fuels, have since dominated. That said, specialist wool sheep such as Merinos, or premium brands like Icebreaker can still command prices of up to £12 per fleece.

There are signs that environmental considerations will help reverse the trend. The environmental damage that comes with synthetic materials and the push back against fast fashion could be just what’s needed to revive wool’s fortunes. It is, after all, a natural fibre that’s evolved to become one of the most effective natural forms of all-weather protection. And it’s renewable – sheep produce a new fleece year in, year out.

Forward-thinking companies are already adding value to fleeces, some of them right on our doorstep. Wool Cool create insulation, which we see being used in food deliveries to our farm shop, Low Sizergh Barn. We also sell Dalefoot wool compost, as well as interior pieces from Cable & Blake whose fabric is made from Herdwick wool.

The counter argument would be to look at ways to avoid the cost of shearing altogether. There are breeds of sheep, such as Wiltshire Horn, that don’t have wool but hair like a goat, and there are others, like the Exlana, that naturally shed their own wool.

For now, we’ll continue with the woolly breeds and perhaps with the moves toward environmentally-friendly products that we’re seeing, the job of shearing will once again be worth the sweat involved. Even in farmer Richard’s most optimistic analysis though, we can’t see the wool cheque paying the farm rent – as it was historically said to do.

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