In case you hadn’t noticed, this is National Wool Week, a promotional and marketing attempt to persuade us to make more use of one of the world’s leading natural fibres
The stumbling block to that, as it has always been – in spite of low wool prices for 20 years until this year’s revival – is cost. Wool might be warmer, biodegradable and more environmentally friendly, entirely natural and more comforting to wear, stylish on the right people, but it also costs more than synthetics. It is also true that many synthetic materials are harder-wearing and last longer than wool.
That’s why I would bet that very little of what you’re wearing now contains much wool. As money pressure continues for most of us, I don’t see that changing much.
What has forced up the price of raw wool is that less is available for those who use it, such as the carpet and rug makers who take about 70 per cent of British wool. In 1990, Britain produced 72million kilos of wool, last year about 32million kilos.
That was because ewe numbers, main source of wool, fell from well over 20million in 1990 to barely 14million now. Poor returns from sheep, including rock-bottom wool prices, changes to the way European Union farm subsidies are paid and the slaughter of more than five million sheep in the foot and mouth epidemic 10 years ago are the main reason for the decline in Britain.
There has also been a massive decline in the world’s two main sheep farming countries because returns have been so poor. Between the mid-1980s and last year, sheep numbers in Australia fell from 200million to 70million and in New Zealand from 70million to 28million.
The results have finally begun to filter through to raw wool prices. Three years ago the British wool indicator price at auction averaged about 38p per kilo. This year it is more than 150p per kilo. If that doesn’t mean a rapid increase in what most of us already think of as the high price of woolen clothes and carpets I’d be surprised.
I’d also be surprised if the diehards of bloom dipping change their ways, regardless of what price wool is. Using a coloured dip – orange or dark brown favoured – was once widespread on sheep for sale at auction in the belief that it was a selling point. What it does is make wool worth much less because of the cost of trying to remove the bloom dip before theh wool can be used by processors. But in the traditional recesses of sheep farming, proven fact is no grounds for changing the habits of a lifetime.
From the macro of global sheep farming to the micro, but probably more interesting, world of autumn ram sales with the biggest of the lot to be held at Kelso tomorrow with more than 5,000 rams from more than a dozen breeds.
The indicators, except possibly the weather, are for a successful sale of rams to help produce next year’s lambs – wool prices are high, breeding ewe and store lamb sales so far this summer have produced high prices, prices of lambs for slaughter have occasionally been at record levels, and ram sales of specific breeds have so far been good.
More than a dozen breeds on offer might seem high until we remember that there are more than 70 in Britain, which is part of the continuing problems the sheep industry has with lamb carcase and wool quality. True, most of those breeds are numerically few and mainly on hobby and lifestyle farms, and a few are related to climatically and geographically extreme areas, such as Herdwicks in the Lake District.
Sheep farming is never likely to have the same efficient uniformity as pig or poultry farming. But there are enough breeds of dubious carcase and wool quality to have a nuisance value for the industry.
In spite of the continued presence at Kelso of some breeds that were once widespread and are now past their sell-by date, a few that have never quite made it and one or two that still hope to, the dominant breed yet again will be Texel, with more than a third of the total entry.
Only Suffolk entries come near the Texel dominance, followed, some distance behind, by Bluefaced Leicester – a breed with a specific crossing purpose – and Charollais.