Open Letter to The Sheep Farmers of the UK

This letter serves to address recent comments on social media questioning the value of British Wool and what the organisation does to benefit sheep farmers.

From the outset, I need to state my interest in the industry. I run a small flock of pedigree Southdowns and am at pains to point out that I am not a sheep farmer, but a wool producer. I am not only a customer of British Wool and licensee holder, being both a micro supplier and buyer of wool, I am also a co-opted member of the South West Regional Committee of British Wool. But more pertinently with respect to this letter, I am also a member of the Italian co-operative called ‘Biella the Wool Company’ and so have insights into the Italian wool industry.

So to those farmers who constantly complain about the services and support British Wool offers UK sheep farmers, compare the local status quo with that of Italy. I have compared the two in order of wool production and definitely not order of importance, so please read to the end.

1. Shearing
Italy – for flocks under 50 or so, because the seasonal shearers cannot be bothered with small numbers, the farmers are obliged to shear the sheep themselves, often collaboratively sharing the task among neighbouring farms. There is no formal shearing training. Skills are learnt on the job.

For larger flocks, shearing teams come in commonly from France and New Zealand. The farmers are given scant notice of their arrival. Given that their flocks are often miles from anywhere, and the shearers’ sense of urgency, wanting to move through areas as fast as possible, the levels of animal husbandry, quality of shearing and animal welfare apparently leave much to be desired.

UK – British Wool runs shearing courses for individual farmers who might want to hone their skills but, more importantly, provide a platform for skills-based careers. This year alone, over 850 have attended courses. The result is a cohort of locally trained shearers, with collectively as good a reputation with respect to quality of work and animal welfare as anywhere in the world, if not industry leaders. Most importantly, without the years of the training provided, the UK flock would not have got shorn when the overseas shearers were not able to come here when Covid prevented travel.

2. Sheeting Up for transport
Italy – there are no facilities or access to wool sheets. Farmers have to just make do with what is lying around the farm, whatever might be supplied by the merchants, or often, nothing.

UK – British Wool provides, free of charge, as many wool sheets as needed, as well as offering a template for a sheet frame which will ensure the resultant sheets are optimally shaped for safe and efficient transport, which is also arranged, if required.

3. Collection of greasy
Italy – there is no centralised collection of the wool although one is being developed. For flocks over 600 or so, the wool merchants will collect off the farm with little or no preparation of the fleeces. The merchant dictates the price and the farmer has no organisation behind them to offer support. The merchants, of course, have a vested interest in securing the wool at the cheapest prices, often blatantly ripping off the farmers. Reports are they pay 10c/kg or often just take the wool away for nothing.
Almost all the wool is often just lumped together with no grading so there can be no traceability or provenance of the fleeces.

For smaller flocks, there is no mechanism for getting the wool to any market and the merchants are not bothered to collect it. Since wool is defined as an animal by-product, if there is no buyer, it has to be disposed of appropriately. The farmers are not permitted to burn or bury the wool. Nevertheless, the farmers still have to produce paperwork to confirm appropriate disposal of the wool. Disposal of wool is charged at 20c/kg. This paperwork has to be available for the annual vet inspection.

UK – British Wool now ensures that there is a collection point within an hour of most farms. Wool delivered by farmers to these or Depots, have no onward charge. Transport to main depots can be arranged, for which there is an at cost charge.

4. Grading and core analysis
Italy – there is some grading, pre-packing and sampling, but this depends on the final customer. The results are of no benefit to the farmer.
UK – British Wool grades all wool and is in the process of addressing the recording of traceability back to the wool producer if required. This lays the foundations for the development of niche products and product branding. Fully documented core samples are taken from every compacted bale, thus providing buyers with the information they require.

5. Auctions and Price Setting
Italy – none that might benefit the farmer. Prices are settled between merchant and final user and nothing gets back to the farmer.
UK – British Wool’s core function is a formalised and sophisticated auction mechanism to ensure the wool producer gets the maximum price that the international market can yield. While British Wool is not a price setter – prices are set internationally depending on the current global supply and demand for fleeces – British Wool will ensure the UK farmer gets the best price achievable. The auction system is transparent with prices for every lot published following Auction Sales. When Covid prevented buyers attending Auctions, British Wool made the electronic system available remotely; a World first.

6. Marketing and Consumer Awareness
Italy – none. There is no Italian wool promotion. International buyers and the Italian public in general have no idea about their local wool or sheep breeds. There is no internationally recognisable mark or logo.

Furthermore, there are no dedicated information sources for Italian farmers which might give them access to local and international market insights. This is compounded by the fact that many do not speak English so cannot access the predominately English-based internet information resources.

UK – British Wool operates as a point of “go to” for information and education with respect to, among many topics, wool, wool products and its environmental benefits. The website is a primary source of up to date information covering the world of wool. British Wool is also active as a marketer of wool derived from British farms to help stimulate demand for all final products, but especially high value niche products. Licensee marks and logos differentiate British wool as a product of excellence.

British Wool is also spearheading marketing initiatives associated with traceability and is offering online retail sources of British wool products.

Quite apart from the online resources offered by British Wool, the organisation is staffed by people who have decades of industry experience and are willing to help at each stage of the wool producing process. I have been dealing with British Wool since 2010 so speak from long and personal experience.

Farmers who criticise British Wool and the organisation’s management and staff demonstrate a complete lack of understanding that wool is a bulk commodity and its movement from farm to factory is a logistical exercise requiring considerable physical infrastructure and financial backing without which, individual farmers would flounder. But more importantly, it requires managerial expertise with vision and a deep understanding of a dynamic international commodity. These skills need to be recognised and compensation must reflect the expertise in order to avoid the old adage: pay peanuts, get monkeys.

So in conclusion, anyone who has even the most superficial understanding of the industry has to conclude that without British Wool, UK sheep farmers would be up the proverbial creek sans a paddle. And if this letter leaves you in any doubt, go and talk to an Italian sheep farmer.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This