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Wool country

I was brought up in wool country. Throughout my early childhood, each of the principal towns in the Scottish Borders – Galashiels, Selkirk, and Hawick1 – had around a dozen woollen mills, employing people in spinning, weaving and dyeing, as well as textile designers and piece-workers – women who would knit-to-order from home. The area was synonymous with tweed and knitwear, and associated with well-known brands such as Pringle and Lyle and Scott. Buyers from French fashion houses including Chanel would visit to choose woollen fabrics and yarn for their signature clothing. 

The raw material was farmed on the hills all around. Sheep provided a living for most of the area’s farmers. There was a busy auction mart in St Boswells and Kelso hosted the UK’s top ram sale. Everything seemed revolve around sheep, and wool, until the 1970s.  

Then – as was the case in the Yorkshire mill towns – decline steepened. Imported synthetics wore away the wool textile trade. People began to favour new cheaper materials such as polyester and bri-nylon for their more clothes and home furnishings. Light down-filled duvets replaced heavy woollen blankets. 

A similar trend was happening with food: fewer hotpots and Scotch pies, more pasta and pulses. Red meat was discovered to be associated with heart problems – beefburger sales rose.

Mills were replaced by electronics factories, and later, retail parks, although today there are still a few mills serving the luxury knitwear market, and just one tweed mill. Farms consolidated. The one where I grew up is now joined with three others and overseen by one man and contractors. Diversification continues at pace. The neighbouring farm is now a golf drive range and adventure centre. Sheep numbers, meanwhile, have stayed high. The Borders has the highest proportion of sheep in Scotland (1.13m or 17% of the total). Are there now too many of them?



May sheep still safely graze?

Are Britain’s sheep an endangered species? 

Given that there are over 30 million ewes, rams and lambs in the national flock, it seems unlikely that our fields and hills will be shorn of the sight of the fleecy grazers any time soon, but there are some who question the need to have quite so many sheep in this country. 

Campaigners such as Ben Goldsmith and Derek Gow believe that overgrazing by sheep has damaged the environment. Goldsmith would like to see nearly of all them to go, claiming that they are “the principal obstacle standing in the way of meaningful nature recovery in Britain’s national parks and other marginal landscapes.”

A visit to Dartmoor, Snowdonia or the Lake District without a sprinkling of sheep on the landscape would be a very different experience, as would seeing the change in the landscape that this might bring. 

Sheep grazing over thousands of years has brought us the smooth-topped hills and acid grasslands of Wales, northern England and southern Scotland. Different breeds – there are around 40 native British varieties from Border Leicester to Wiltshire Horn  – have been adapted to thrive in all corners of the UK, from lush Devon pastures to the bare rocky Hebridean landscape of Soay. 

The campaigners argue that without sheep, the moorlands and hills would be able to revert to their native woodland and flora, allowing for greater biodiversity and enabling insects, birds and other animals to thrive, while also absorbing increased rainfall in a way that might stop water running down to flood the towns below. 

On the other side of the argument, writer and farmer John Lewis-Stempel points out that sheep farming has been in existence since the Bronze Age and that it was at this point that the uplands’ arboreal cover began to be removed. He says that by the time the Romans colonised in AD53, farming had “already created much of the chalk downlands, and also the grasslands at previously wooded altitudes. So what exactly are we seeking to restore, and to which point in time?

The golden hoof

Those who champion sheep farming, and a way of life that has provided a living for thousands of years, say that sheep have a unique way of turning otherwise unproductive land into valuable protein. Grassland itself is a valuable carbon sink. Sheep and cattle together form the ‘golden hoof’ – improving the fertility of the land by manuring as they go, trampling in seeds and nutrition, and generally creating a beneficial cycle. 

Shepherding, which encompasses knowledge in animal breeding, behaviour and husbandry, as well as keen understanding of the landscape and habitat, has been developed and passed down over many centuries. Along with its associated sectors, from abattoirs and butchers to textiles and tanneries, the sheep industry provides around 150,000 jobs and contributes £290 million a year to the UK’s GDP, according to the National Sheep Association. 

Yet lamb only constitutes around 4% of meat intake in the UK diet. Sales are falling faster than other red meat sales in the past two years1, although lamb experienced a boom in lockdown. Most of the UK’s lamb goes to export. So sheep are good for the economy, but are perhaps not vital in keeping people in this country fed.  

Sheep produce more than just meat, of course. Every year they provide a crop of wool, in a process that far from harming the animal is necessary to their welfare. Wool is a fibre with unbeatable qualities: it is naturally heat-regulating, antibacterial, flame-retardant and entirely compostable. It can capture and store carbon dioxide – wool products continue to do so throughout their lifetime, according to British Wool. And of course it can be used to make carpets, jumpers, blankets, upholstery, suiting and the finest shawls. British Wool, formerly the Wool Marketing Board – the only outlet through which the UK’s sheep farmers can sell their wool – deals with 2.5 million kilograms of it every year. 

Wool wealth

Wool was instrumental in building Britian’s economy in the past, particularly in the Middle Ages when it was a valuable commodity and the country was at the hub of a huge international export business. We have wool wealth to thank for grand Cotswold churches, large manor houses, miles of drystone walls, ancient guildhalls, market squares, and once-prosperous woollen mill towns. In 1321 one Italian merchant recorded the price of a sack (324lb) of wool as being 28 marks – around £3,000 at today’s prices. Today wool has much lesser value and fetches a low price – often less than it costs to carry out the essential shearing. This summer, wool from a Scottish Blackface – a coarse fibre ideal for carpets – is fetching around 40-50p per kilogram, whereas finer specialist wool from the Bluefaced Leicester breed, which rivals the ubiquitous merino in quality and is being increasingly recognised by sustainable-minded fashion retailers, will sell for ten times that amount. According to Ben Goldsmith, wool prices are low because “we are so heavily oversupplied with it.”

For the past 150 years, the UK’s sheep numbers have remained steady at around the level they are now, apart from one huge increase – by over 14 million between 1980 and 1995 –  due to the effect of a change in European CAP subsidies. Those numbers were stalled by the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. 

Future opportunities

What is the outlook for sheep? Lamb prices are relatively high currently but many hill farmers are considering giving up a hard and lonely business where there is not always a viable living to pass on to a younger generation. Continued uncertainty over government subsidies and support may force their hands. 

There are possibly some more encouraging signs for wool as the fashion industry – the second biggest polluting industry in the world – looks for sustainable options. For wool this often means merino wool raised in Australia or South America, and knitted in China, in line with figures that show that 90 percent of the clothing that we buy in Britain is manufactured abroad. 

Other opportunities are being explored for this versatile fibre: wool is being mixed into compost to help retain water as peat is being phased out. Wool-filled mattresses, pillows and duvets are beginning to sell in greater numbers, offering as much comfort as duck and goose down. This is happening at that same time that the ethics of the down trade are being questioned – between 60-90 percent of world’s down market is live-plucked, according to a report by Kalla Fakta. This involves birds being tied up and having their breast feathers ripped out every 6-8 weeks. And as the need to insulate our homes properly to save energy becomes more urgent, wool offers a natural alternative to hard-to-dispose-of fibreglass. 

The best hope is a compromise and this may be where we will end up, possibly dictated by policy – or lack of it. Sheep numbers are likely to reduce by natural attrition. Hill farms are being replaced by carbon offsetting woodland, especially in Wales, where such schemes with large backers are outbidding young farmers for land. Most rewilding campaigners acknowledge that farming will need to co-exist with their reintroduction ambitions.

Farming will continue to evolve and adapt, as it always has done. There is much greater interest in regenerative agriculture, which vitally restores and improves the soil and offers commercial viability. If the government gets behind this nature-friendly farming, huge strides will be made. Even Ben Goldsmith admits that sheep can “work well in the rotational practices favoured by regenerative farms in our productive heartlands…they can also aid in the conservation of certain precious cultural landscapes, such as flower-rich hay meadows.”

Perhaps we will also finally rediscover the natural benefits of wool as a fibre that can enhance our homes, our clothing, and our environment. For a start, it needs less washing.

The sight of Herdwicks browsing the Lake District fells, Welsh mountain sheep being gathered from the Black Mountains, and Cheviots nursing their lambs among the Southern Uplands, will surely not be lost for ever. Nor will the skills of those who look after them.

I’ll leave the last words to John Lewis-Stempel: “Sheep farming can be a virtuous circle where we all win: sheep, humans and nature.”

© Laura Parker

Borders, Farming, Sheep, Wool

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