Shearing season brings a positive outlook to East Anglia’s wool industry

A training course for sheep shearing at Fendale Farm in Nordelph. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A training course for sheep shearing at Fendale Farm in Nordelph. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

With the sheep-shearing season in full swing, there is a positive mood in the industry which collects and sells one of agriculture's most versatile off-cuts – wool.

The trend for synthetic fibres 40 years ago heralded a spell out in the cold for a natural product which had always played an important role in our wardrobes and home furnishings.

But these days, British wool is back in fashion and undergoing something of a renaissance.

And with a resurgence in customer demand bringing opportunities for a new income stream, the industry is educating a new generation of farmers about the skills needed to cash in on the economic benefits of one of the most versatile offcuts in agriculture.

A training day at Fendale Farm, in Nordelph, near Downham Market, was the fourth annual event organised by the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) and The Training Association (West).

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Instructor Ed Odell, who works as a contractor in North Norfolk, said he was taught the art of shearing by this father when he was eight years old.

But he said it was crucial to make education available for those who might be new to the livestock sector, or looking to extend their skills.

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'I think it is incredibly important that they have this training available,' he said. 'Not everyone is an academic genius. You get some people who can hardly read and write, but give them a handpiece and they can shear 300 sheep in a day. Because they are good with their hands, they can be craftsmen.

'It seems to have skipped a generation – there are a lot of young enthusiastic people wanting to go into livestock now. It is physical work, and it is hard work, but they are quite willing to do it.

'I think with the changing policies and cropping regimes on farms, they are thinking about things differently. People have got to put more break crops in, so I think you will see more sheep on farms to eat up the grass and the turnips. I don't know exactly what the cost is for topping grass but the sheep are much cheaper and better than any mower.

'It also gives an opening to go to a farmer and say: 'I've got 100 sheep, have you got any grazing?' If they can work together, it is an opening for those youngsters who want to do it. They cannot afford to buy farms, rents are high and tenancies are hard to come by.'

Mr Odell said wool prices had plummeted in the 1980s because of competition from man-made fibres, with natural wool previously seen as an expensive alternative.

'Now the wool prices are steadily increasing and the BWMB are doing a good job of marketing it,' he said. 'Rather than a waste product, the public are starting to understand that wool is a very durable product, and it is great insulation through the year, whether it is hot or cold.

'It has become a valuable natural product and it can pay for itself. In the old days it would pay the farmer's rent for the year.'

East Anglia's lowland sheep have a finer and more valuable wool than the coarser coats of upland breeds. At the training day, the sheep being shorn were a Highlander cross, which give up to 2.5kg of wool per head, fetching about £1.20 per kilo.

The trainees were taught the Bowen Method – a specific pattern of cuts which will take a fleece from an animal in about 40 'blows'.

'An experienced shearer can make it look easy, but people don't realise how much of a skill it is,' said Mr Odell. 'It might only take 10 minutes to shear all their sheep, but it has taken years and years of practice.'

Among the trainees was Paul Furness, from Church Farm Rare Breed Centre near Downham Market, where he has 250 sheep, along with cattle and pigs.

'It is a case of improving our skill set so we can provide greater care for our livestock,' he said. 'I have been working with sheep for 20 years, but I have come on a beginners course to start from scratch.

'It is a very specialised skill. You need to memorise the routine. It is like a dance routine. I feel like I have gained some confidence, and I'm less apprehensive than when I started. If you damage the teats on a breeding ewe, that sheep goes straight to slaughter so there is quite a lot of responsibility to it, and there is a lot to be said for being taught properly. That's why I am here.'

The approved training provider for sheep-shearing in the UK is the British Wool Marketing board, a farmer-run co-operative established 65 years ago to give its members a stronger presence in world markets, using collective marketing to maximise the value of their product.

More than 1,000 trainees attended a BWMB shearing course last year – 65pc of them were absolute beginners, starting out on a series of recognised qualifications moving through blue, bronze, silver and gold 'seals'.

And there is further cause for optimism in the wool industry as a strong demand for British wool continues alongside a positive price outlook. Earlier this month, the board's chief executive Ian Hartley announced that the forthcoming wool season would see overall payments to producers at similar levels to 2014, with slight increases within specific types and breeds.

He said: 'The BWMB's competitive auction system is a tried-and-tested method of delivering the best possible wool returns for producers, and it once again proved itself in 2014, a period of very challenging market conditions with the ever-changing currency fluctuations, coupled with the much reported slowdown in economic activity in our major export market, China. This is a positive outcome and is the result of the board's proactive selling policy, ensuring the best possible prices are achieved.

'Following this strong performance over the last 12 months, and with minimal stock carryover into the new season, the outlook is positive heading into the 2015 season, with demand for all types of wool strong in both the domestic and overseas markets.'

Harder than it looks: a first-person perspective

As an absolute amateur, EDP farming editor Chris Hill found sheep-shearing a daunting experience:

'Once you've seen an expert shearing a fleece from a sheep with apparent ease in a matter of seconds, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a simple task.

'But, having been offered the opportunity to try it under the watchful eye of BWMB trainers, I can report that in reality it is a physically exhausting and technically demanding skill.

'As an absolute beginner with limited experience of handling livestock, the first problem is to get control of the sheep. With feet facing inwards to grip your customer's head between your legs, there's an incredible strain on the hamstrings as you're bent double to hold the wriggling animal still as it fights its natural instinct to get back on its feet. And, its only available response to any discomfort is to kick you.

'Then, with the welfare of the animal foremost in your mind, the next hurdle is to muster the confidence to apply the razor-sharp cutting blades close to the skin to separate the fleece in one pass, with any second cuts meaning wasted effort and – more importantly – ruined wool.

'For the remaining cuts, the physical contortions continue for the shearer to keep control of the sheep as it is spun around on its wooden board to access the next piece of wool in a set pattern of about 40 'blows', following the natural curves and bones of the animal.

'Afterwards, with hands greasy from the lanolin in the wool and trembling from the vibrations of the handpiece, I found my muscles aching and my breath heavy after shearing about half of one sheep. The best shearers can complete 300 in a day – clearly, I would need to spend a lot more time in the gym to get anywhere close.'

Wool facts

• There are more than 120 grades of wool, with the diameter of the fibres being the most important characteristic determining quality and price.

• The finest and most valuable wool comes from Merino hoggets in Australia and New Zealand. Any wool finer than 25 microns can be used for garments, while coarser grades are used for outerwear, rugs or carpets. The finer the wool, the softer it is, while coarser grades are more durable and less prone to pilling, or bobbling.

• UK wool production in 2014 was 28.9 million kilos, an increase of more than half a million kilos from the previous year.

• According to BWMB figures, Norfolk has 201 producers with a total weight of 121,845kg. Suffolk has 122 producers with 61,768 kg, and Cambridgeshire has 67 producers with 25,793kg of wool.

• The UK supplies about 2pc of global wool production. The world leaders are Australia with 20pc and China with 19pc.

• In this country, 60pc of our wool is used for carpets, 18pc for knitwear and hand knitting, and 8pc for cloth.

• Wool only represents 4pc of the fibres used in the UK, with the majority being synthetic fibres and cotton.

• Lanolin, a wax secreted by wool-bearing animals, is extracted from the wool and used in commercial products including cosmetics, soap, and lip balms.

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