Adam Henson: Give fleece a chance
PUBLISHED: 18:13 12 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:41 20 February 2013
The wool of our Cotswold sheep is the loveliest of the lot – thick, lustrous and smooth to the touch says Adam Henson
"In Europe the best wool is English and in England the best wool is Cotswold". For a sheep farmer like me that 12th century saying is music to my ears. The quality of our local wool was so well regarded in the Middle Ages that its thought the old Flemish weavers even used to sing about it. Here on the Farm Park were busy shearing our entire flock of 900 sheep at the moment. So theres plenty of wool around the place and of course the fleece of our county breed, the Cotswold, is the loveliest of the lot. Its thick, lustrous and smooth to the touch thanks to the lanolin within it. The word lanolin comes from the original Latin, meaning wool oil, and its a perfect description. This stuff is Mother Natures waterproofing.
Across the country, shearing follows the season, so it happens a little earlier in Cornwall than it does in the Cotswolds, which in turn is a bit ahead of Scotland. These days much of the work is done by gangs of experienced shearers who travel north across the country working from farm to farm. Its back breaking work but theyre as keen as mustard and as quick as lightning. The sheep are gathered into handling pens and a really good shearer can get through 250 or even 300 animals in a day. Now I think Im pretty good with a pair of electric clippers but my limit is about 100, so I take my hat off to these guys.
Incidentally, if you bump into a sheep shearer in your local pub one evening and you fancy a chat, dont expect to hear an English accent. As with so many menial jobs these days, it just doesnt attract the native workforce. Most gangs are from Down Under. Australians and New Zealanders are drawn to it by the huge sums of money they can make, the chance to travel the world and it also appeals to their inbuilt sense of competitiveness. The challenge is to get the entire fleece off the sheep in one piece so that it can be rolled and bagged into what are still referred to as woolsacks. For centuries pack ponies would carry two of these woolsacks at a time, down from the hill farms into the weaving towns. The shearing gangs want to get through a farmers entire flock in a day and then move on. Its a different story for us because so many Farm Park visitors want to see what happens, so we stagger the work and only shear a few sheep each day.
Im often asked what happens to the fleece once its removed. Well, all the coloured wool is bought by spinners and weavers while the white fleeces are sold to the British Wool Marketing Board which runs a centralised system to help get the best possible profit for the stuff. Obviously the price for the coarser wool from mountain breeds like Herdwicks will be much lower than the finer, more versatile long wool of the Cotswolds. The decline in the sheep populations of Australia and New Zealand, coupled with increased demand for wool in China, has pushed the price up recently. Even so, on average UK farmers can still only expect to make about 75 pence per pound. The sad part of this story is that for many people, shearing simply isnt economical. The price the farmer gets for his wool barely covers the cost of having it shorn.
Regular Countryfile viewers will know that Im on a bit of a crusade when it comes to encouraging more people to buy products made of British wool. After all, what could be more traditional, natural, sustainable and renewable? You might have even seen me doing my bit to promote the industry by wearing a beautiful wool suit from Savile Row as I drove a flock of sheep through the centre of Stow-on-the-Wold. If you share my views on this often overlooked natural fibre, there are lots of things you can do to help. For a start, the Campaign for Wool is always looking for new members. You could sign up for a sheep shearing course to find out more or join in with National Wool Week from September 5-11. But perhaps the easiest way to help is to make sure you buy and wear British wool whenever possible. To misquote the late, great John Lennon: all I am saying is give fleece a chance.
Cotswold Farm Park, Guiting Power, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL54 5UG
Tel: 01451 850307; Fax: 01451 850423