Sheep farmers face drastic choice over wool

UNLESS demand improves dramatically in the next few weeks, British sheep farmers and their wool marketing board face a drastic downturn in sales and market returns.

Prices have picked up a little at recent sales, which have seen a clearance of about 60 per cent of the annual 38 million kilos clip, but at an indicated price of 76p per kilo compared with last year's 81p.

All of which points to heeding advice from John Vipond, sheep specialist with the Scottish Agricultural College, and John Thorley, the National Sheep Association's policy adviser, to make tough decisions on whether there is a need for traditional breeds producing wool or to opt for breeds or cross breeds that don't require shearing.

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"Sheep farmers are producing wool at a loss and they have to ask themselves whether this makes any sense," says Vipond. "I was talking to a Swaledale breeder the other day and he said he was making 14p per ewe from the fleeces while it was costing him 80p per animal for shearing.

"Fleeces are the biggest cost to shepherds, not only in terms of shearing, but with regard to dipping for diseases such as fly strike. They also cost money in terms of the protein that is needed to produce them against the cost of producing meat."

New breeds with less shearing demands, such as the Wiltshire Horn, have been in existence for some time. They have been joined by the Dorper breed from South Africa and the Easycare from New Zealand, where farmers have made their decisions to go for high meat production, with, for example, the Romney for wool.

Latest in the line of high meat/low wool contenders is the Rossington Composite which Vipond has been examining in conjunction with top NZ producer Jeremy Absolom at bilateral talks at the SAC's Bush Estate near Edinburgh.

"Farmers need to look at this issue very carefully and decide whether they need this labour-intensive activity or whether they can do without wool production," he said.

Thorley is equally unimpressed with the returns from a wool sector that has been the mainstay of many urban developments in the past. Both the "Woolsack" in the House of Lords and the Forth Bridge are dependent on wool for support.

"I have been saying for some time now that sheep farmers need to take a new look at the business of wool production. This will not happen overnight. People who can produce top-quality wool at a profit will continue to do so, but there are many others for whom it is a costly and unproductive business."

He pointed out that part of the problem lay in the low reproductive rate of the sheep sector. While a sow could give rise to around 7,000 young pigs within, say, three years, this was limited to around 15 lambs in the same period.

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Liz Ambler, a spokeswoman for the British Wool Marketing Board, paints a more optimistic picture of the future. "The market for wool is certainly more volatile than it has been in the past. But against that, we have to remember that the cost of man-made fibres is rising due to the volatility in the oil sector," she said.

Demand has been fuelled partly by the increased demand from China, which takes 13 per cent of the total British wool clip.

But British producers will have to wait until May this year before they know what the price pattern from the board is likely to be for the coming year."