A Welsh farmer torched hundreds of ‘worthless’ sheep fleeces in protest at rock-bottom wool prices after the pandemic saw the market for the natural material sink to ‘diabolical’ lows.
He piled up 800 fleeces from newly-shorn sheep and turned them into a funeral pyre saying it was cheaper to destroy them by fire than to go to the effort and expense of selling them.
Claiming he and other farmers are being fleeced, he set light to the woolly mountain because it was worth ‘peanuts’ to him.
He wanted to make a point, said fellow farmer Gareth Wyn Jones, from Llanfairfechan, Conwy.
Gareth was sent photos and videos of the protest to post on his social media platforms because the ‘bonfire farmer’ from South Wales doesn’t want to be identified.
The Welsh farmer burnt 800 fleeces in protest at rock bottom wool prices, after the closure of export markets in February forced prices to plummet
He is the not the first wool producer to make a stand this year after prices collapsed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In June, Anglesey farmer Gerallt Hughes threw fleeces from nearly 600 sheep on to a compost pile because it would have cost him more to sell them.
He faced spending 30p to pack a fleece only to get 24p back for it if and when he could find a buyer.
Other despairing sheep farmers have used fleeces as animal bedding, given them away to gardeners as a weed suppressant – or simpy left them to rot in fields.
Gareth said: ‘This farmer burnt his wool because it was cheaper than selling it. Sheep still have to be sheared each summer but many farmers will have lost money as a result.
‘We took our own wool to the collection depot this year but only because we wanted to keep some kind of market for it, even if we can’t make any money at the moment.
‘However in this case I think the farmer involved want to make some kind of protest.’
Other farmers have pledged to followed suit despite criticism from those who want to see wool put to constructive use.
Gareth said ‘What he has done is to reignite the conversation about what to do with this fantastic, sustainable material.’
Farmer Gareth Wyn Jones, from Llanfairfechan, Conwy, shared pictures sent to him by a fellow farmer who wanted to remain anonymous
This year’s collapse in wool prices followed the closure of export markets in February before part of last year’s sheep-shearings had been sold.
It led to a global over-supply of crossbred fibre, causing prices to plummet almost by a half.
The UK produces nearly 22,000 tons of wool every year from about 45,000 farmers who tend more than 32 million sheep – one for every two people.
Shearing is principally done for the welfare of the animal and must be carried out annually, costing up to £2 per sheep.
Britain’s wool crisis was thrown into sharp focus at last month’s 10th annual Wool Week, where the need for new markets was emphasised.
Among those actively campaigning for solutions is Aberconwy MS Janet Finch-Saunders, who is keen to develop domestic markets for Welsh wool.
She has lobbied bed and carpet manufacturers, fashion retailers and the National Trust asking them to actively promote Welsh Wool as a sustainable product.
Last week the John Lewis Partnership agreed to include UK wool in a raft of its product offerings.
Sheep have to be shorn every year to avoid them catching tics and other bugs, but what was once a booming market for the natural product has dropped into a ‘pretty diabolical’ state, according to some farmers
‘Our retailers can play an essential role in supporting Welsh farmers by altering the materials used in their products’ added the MP.
The Welsh Government has said it will look at using Welsh wool as an insulation material in new houses, providing it meets building regulations.
Britain has about 32 million sheep and if they’re not shorn, they can be plagued by ticks. The tiny bugs burrow into their coats and can then ‘hop’ on to passing people and lead to crippling Lyme Disease.
When he dumped hundreds of fleeces in June, Gerallt Hughes, 30, of Llangefni, Anglesey, blamed the ‘diabolical’ state of the wool market.
He said it wasn’t worth paying someone to bag up the fleeces and transport them to the wool board because ‘the cost outweighs the benefits’.
He said many sheep farmers have said they won’t be sending wool this year because they won’t make any money from the trade.
‘The wool market globally is pretty diabolical. The board haven’t looked at other markets or other ways to sell the wool’ he said.
‘The board dictates who buys and who sells and maybe it’s time we need to dismantle it and look at selling it ourselves.
With the market in tatters, it costs more for farmers to to shear their sheep than they will get from selling their wool
‘I sheered 574 sheep, and that’s not all of my sheep, and it’s just not cost-effective. The costs outweigh the benefits and it’s not worth it.
‘We only do it once a year and while some people see wool as a by-product, for some farmers it’s a way to make a living.
‘A few hobbyists have reached out and will take some, but the rest will be used as compost, and all the natural nutrients will just go back into the earth so it won’t be wasted.’
It is the latest blow to an industry already beset by fears that it could soon be undermined by inferior US imports.
Around 10,000 tons of wool are sitting unsold in depots across the UK following the shutdown in the global market caused by coronavirus, which hit after decades of falling prices.
John Royle, of the National Farmers’ Union, said: ‘Back in the day, people used to say that shearing almost paid the farm rent but those days are gone.
‘For some hill breeds you’re getting less than 10p per fleece when it’s costing nearly £1 to shear it. It’s costing a lot more to shear the sheep than you get back from the wool, which seems a real shame when you have got potentially such a great product.’
Farmer David Jones, from Shropshire, opted not to sell his fleeces this year after receiving £700 for five tons of wool in 2019 – despite £2,500 shearing costs.
‘It just wasn’t feasible really. There’s more value to turn them into organic fertiliser rather than pay extra labour to pack, handle and transport the wool.’
Sussex shepherd Stuart Fletcher brought the issue to public attention with a post on social media showing his fleeces piled up. It was shared 24,000 times.
‘I just happened to put it on our Facebook page because I thought people should know about it and it went crazy.
Sheep shearing involves pinning the animal down to cut off their wool. The natural material has a variety of uses, including use as an organic fertiliser
‘Everybody is saying we want this stuff, we think it’s a brilliant product, where can we get it?’
He’s backing a petition that calls on the Government to make British wool products mandatory in the new £2 billion home-insulation scheme announced earlier this month.
A spokesperson for the British Wool Board said: ‘We understand the huge frustration farmers feel on the current situation within the wool market and that it is tempting to focus on and scapegoat the market leader in farm gate wool marketing.
‘However, it’s important to recognise and understand, the global wool market finds itself in is unprecedented and challenging times as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which has not only had a significant impact on wool but on the economy in general.
‘Unlike other agricultural products whose markets have been disrupted but where there has been some demand throughout, the markets for wool products were closed from February until June and are only now seeing a slow and partial re-opening against a backdrop of huge global oversupply of crossbred wool due to the extended closure of the market.
‘In light of the huge and unprecedented valuation uncertainty in the market, we will, exceptionally, not be making an advance against the 2020/21 clip wool and instead, producers will receive full payment for 2020/21 clips from May 2021 onwards once we have sold the clip and have valuation certainty.
‘This gives the market a window of 12 months to show some improvement on prices and producers would clearly see the benefit of this by marketing their wool through us as we return all of the value to them and do not make a profit.
‘Producers can be assured that British Wool, as a trusted partner, will be at the forefront of leading the growth and renewal of wool values, but this will take time. We will emerge stronger from this period, so long as UK wool producers stay together and continue to back their organisation, British Wool.’
British Wool is owned by approximately 40,000 sheep farmers across the UK.
They collect, grade, market and sell wool on behalf of farmers to the international wool textile industry for use in flooring, furnishings and apparel.
Shearing is a back-breaking job but has to be done every summer when the weather gets too hot and flies and ticks become a problem.
A fleece from a top breed is worth about £5.
Shearers usually travel from farm to farm on a ‘hired gun’ contract, in gangs of up to eight people.
It is very hard work but the best can shear 200 sheep a day, getting about £2 per sheep.
The National Sheep Association (NSA) has launched a service to link farmers with shearers in their area.
It said sheep that were not shorn of their fleeces could be at risk of heat stress and infections from flies.
The NSA said it was estimated overseas shearers usually shear about 20 per cent of the UK flock, so the lockdown would mean this was a ‘difficult time’.
But it was ‘vitally important’, to safeguard the health and welfare of flocks, that shearing is done minimise the risk of conditions such as heat stress and fly strike, an illness caused when insects burrow into a sheep’s fleece.
The NSA has been compiling a dossier to connect farmers with shearers based in the UK in the hope of overcoming the overseas quarantine problems.
It’s also been working with the National Association of Agricultural Contractors, British Wool and farming organisations to make the register as comprehensive as possible.
Shearing adult sheep means holding them down while they struggle, and clipping the fleece off their body.
It’s a back breaking job which is usually done by extremely fit and strong young men, although there are many women shearers too.
The best of them can shear 200 sheep a day but in ‘the trade’ it’s reckoned the average shearer’s back will only stand the strain for a few years before they are forced to give up.
They travel the world, trying to earn a fortune in those few years before their bodies give up the ghost.