Andrew Arbuckle: Time for the Wool Board to submit to the shearer…

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IT WAS good solid Scotch broth where the soup plate could be tilted at quite an angle without any danger of it slopping over the side. The pearl barley had steeped for some time, giving the soup a degree of maturity and everyone tucked in.

This was followed by trays of shepherd’s pie on the buffet table to which the sheep farmers helped themselves with big scoops – by the time the press got to the front of the queue there were lots of well-fed shepherds around but little pie left. It has been commented before now that the agricultural journalists are a well-nourished bunch, so no damage was done.

Alas, I cannot tell you about the pudding as the writers in the throng had to make their way to the press table at the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) meeting before it started to be served.

As has been recorded, the message from the high heidyins to those who look after sheep and annually clip them was not good. Any early summer optimism about the market had diminished and this year’s wool prices would probably be only about half that originally predicted.

The management even glossed over an error of judgement in keeping back stock from last year when prices were strong to this current season where prices are weak.

Would this news get some of the sheep farmers present on to their feet, banging the tables in disgust or disappointment?

No, there was either an acceptance that that was the way it was and nothing could be done – or it could have been the sheer calorific intake at lunchtime held them down in their seats. (If it was the latter it was a cunning ploy by the BWMB management.)

As I drove home, I wondered about this situation. In any other commodity, there would have been a few shouts, a bit of heckling and an impassioned speech or ten on the price collapse. Only two months earlier, I attended a number of milk producer meetings and they were only marginally short of lynching someone, such was their rage at the buyers dropping their price by a couple of pence per litre.

It may be because the days are long gone where wool contributed a significant part of the sheep farmers’ income – now if they get enough to pay the shearers’ bill then that is about that.

I then thought about the BWMB, which for some reason seems to have escaped the cull of statutory bodies. While others – such as the Milk Marketing Board and the Potato Marketing Board – were taken apart by government, the wool board did not come onto the political radar.

The decision to do so could not have been based on size, as political panjandrums had also taken out the eggs, hops, tomato and cucumber boards.

So uniquely, the Wool Board survives, with its almost monopolistic control of the market – total monopoly only being denied by a few small-scale spinners and a couple of opportunistic Irishmen.

At the last time of asking, there were about 70,000 wool producers in mainland Britain, although that number has slipped down along with the reduction in the national flock number. Likewise the clip, which, having peaked at just under 50 million kg, is now down to just over 30 million kg.

To be fair to the Wool Board, it has trimmed its overheads in line with these reductions, but the managers been hampered in their cost controls by a rampantly underfunded pension scheme which still has a large – meaning multi-million-pound – black hole.

The Wool Board emerged in the early 1950s following the Second World War where wool, a much-needed material in the military, was a controlled commodity.

Even in its infancy, the Wool Board did extremely well financially with the Korean War dramatically increasing demand for warm woolly clothing for military men.

In these more peaceful days, where wool is challenged by a whole range of man-made materials, the value of the wool clip to the sheep farmers has reduced to the point where it is somewhere between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of their total income.

It may be that since the politicians stripped out the support for wool, they could not care less about the continued existence of the BWMB, but at least south of the Border the politicians are tackling and removing a lot of bodies which are no longer essential.

Does the Wool Board come into this category? I think the answer to that lies in the question: would anybody miss it if it was gone? My answer is: not a lot. (And there goes my chance of shepherd’s pie next time around…)