Shear desperation: low price of wool pushes farmers to opt for moulting sheep

No one shears sheep to sell the wool any more, explains James Edwards, a new-entrant tenant farmer with a flock of more than 1,200 ewes. Instead, most people do it for the sheep’s sake, to get the wool off them.

After decades of wool prices that barely cover the cost of shearing, more and more farmers are seeing wool as an optional extra to the meat that brings in the bulk of their income.

A price crash during the pandemic saw farmers getting an average price of just 32p a kilo for wool. In contrast, a lamb currently has a value of about £90-£120.

That’s why an increasing number of shepherds like Edwards are turning to “wool shedders” – breeds of sheep that shed their own wool. The National Sheep Association (NSA) estimates there could be as many as 500,000 wool-shedding breeding ewes in the UK, out of a total population of 14.5 million.

Edwards’s wool shedders are exlanas, a breed that has been in development since 2008 and whose name means “without wool” in Latin.

The wool-shedding trait has its origins in the Wiltshire Horn, a native breed of British sheep that was predominant in the south-west county during the 18th century, before the movement towards increasingly woollier sheep led to a decline in its popularity.

“Wool is a man-made thing,” says Edwards. “Naturally, sheep don’t have big woolly fleeces, because there wouldn’t be anybody there to shear them. All forms of early, primitive or wild sheep either shed their wool or it falls out.

“We bred them to have massive fleeces because of the wool trade; that was great, because wool was a fibre that was incredibly popular. Fast forward to now, it’s simply not worth anything.”

For Edwards, wool-shedding sheep were the only logical choice when he came to building his first flock of 100 sheep with a £10,000 bank loan.

“When I first went into it I didn’t have any sheep. There was no home farm, so I just looked at what I thought made the most sense economically. Wool didn’t feature in that.

“I am going to struggle to affect the price I sell a lamb for at the end, but I can affect the costs it takes me to get to the point of sale. By reducing the wool element and the jobs associated with it, I am reducing those costs,” says Edwards.

A sheep’s fleece has the potential to be a serious welfare issue for the animal if it is not maintained and shorn every year. Wool-shedding sheep are more resistant to a condition called fly strike – where an animal is eaten alive by maggots that hatch in its fleece.

“Because there’s no wool, they don’t get struck. That’s labour saving: I don’t have to run around all the time, worrying and looking for maggots in sheep. But also, I’m not using nasty chemical compounds [to treat the animals],” says Edwards.

Though recent evidence suggests that wool prices are beginning to recover, they still do not cover the shearing cost for most producers, according to British Wool, which is about £1.65 a sheep.

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the NSA, says a wholesale switch to wool-shedding sheep would be a “real shame” because wool is probably one of the “most sustainable fibres in the world, growing naturally on the back of a sheep”.

However, for Edwards, the growing trend towards wool-shedding sheep is a reflection of modern farming.

“The days of getting up in the morning and spending all day on the farm chasing 300 sheep around are gone to a certain extent,” he said. “We work out that a reasonable number of sheep to make a living off is about 1,200 ewes per person.

“Like every industry, everyone is trying to work out ways to make yourselves more streamlined and efficient. Removing the wool is a way of doing this.”

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