Covid fleeces ‘forgotten’ wool industry
The wool industry in Ireland is at a crossroads. It has been before, but at a time of total price collapse, when even the best wool is selling at close to last year’s worst prices, there’s gathering momentum to re-establish an Irish Wool Council to promote the sector.
Just how far the industry has fallen was illustrated in a receipt for wool sold by Bernard King, a sheep farmer from Galway. The docket, posted online, soon went viral. Bernard had got 245 sheep sheared, with clipping weighing approximately 355kg. He received a paltry €17.75 for his trouble.
The plight of the wool sector was most recently raised by Independent Senator Victor Boyhan in the Seanad.
A member of the Agricultural Panel, he raised the need for an Irish Wool Council back in November 2019 also, but then Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed was not receptive.
On top of the 245 sheep already shorn, Mr King has around 800 more to clip before summer’s end.
“Somebody has to be making money, but it’s not me or any other farmer the way things are,” he grumbles with typical Joyce-county drawl.
Mr King would support feeding into an Irish-run wool board system, pointing to how such industry is managed in places like Iceland. “They’re smaller but they’ve got a great wool industry there, and they do a great job selling it.”
He adds: “It’s a natural product, can be used for an awful lot of things, was used for an awful lot of things. Sure we’re all now only wearing clothes made out of bloody Coke bottles. It’s a disgrace the way wool has been allowed to fall so low.”
Fergal Byrne feels the needs for a serious revamp of the image of wool from a waste product to a valuable commodity.
ICSA Organics Committee chair states bluntly: “If you keep treating stuff like sh**e it’ll stay sh**e.”
Mr Byrne has a herd of around 250 ewes with lambs to finish at his rural Kildare holding.
Of the estimated five millions kgs of wool generated in Ireland each year, Fergal surmises: “As a country, if we can’t market that then there’s something seriously wrong!”
The ‘Pat Paddy’ McGoverns, is a nickname colloquially defining the family in an area densely littered with namesakes, hailing from Swanlinbar at the foothills of Cuilcagh.
Vincent McGovern is a second generation wool merchant, following in the footsteps of his father, Jack - a legend around these parts.
Vincent trades out of Abbey Wools in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, providing ample coverage to the undulating region where few but hardy sheep farmers can survive.
When the Celt first meets Vincent it’s in a church car-park on a mizzly Wednesday afternoon. He’s out on his rounds and, regardless of the day’s dampness, still fielding queries from those looking to sell clippings.
“It’s not that the price has fallen... it’s totally collapsed!,” claims Vincent. “The decline has been going on for a long, long time,” he huffs further, removing a mottled pair of glasses to wipe the lenses clean on his sleeve.
As if to prove his point he pulls his phone from his jacket and swipes a finger across its chipped screen to find the calculator app before totting some quick math. Transferring 75p a pound paid in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s to kilos and then to euro, he holds up the outcome: €2.10/kg.
“That’s what it use to be,” declares Vincent. In that context the fall has been dramatic. Today, the same quality wool is selling for around 15c/kg, a drop of nearly 93%.
Vincent is still paying farmers up front. It means he’s perhaps more invested in a recovery than most.
“They’re lads I’ve always bought wool off, that’s just the way it is, the way it’s always been,” he resigns.
In the background the church bell tolls ominously.
Wool bought last year fetched up to three times the price it can today, and critically for Vincent and others, there are already stockpiles right through the system.
The British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) takes in all UK clippings, and most from Ireland, where it is sorted into 100-plus fleece grades. Farmers are then paid based on what is sold at weekly auctions. If the price in Bradford falls, Irish farmers feel the impact.
Worryingly, weekly sales in Bradford have been pushed out to fortnightly. The downturn is summed up by sales where as little as 20% of wool on offer has sold.
At the start of the 2020 shearing season, BWMB had circa nine million kgs of unsold stock from the 2019/20 clip of 27million kgs.
The BWMB continued to collect wool as normal during the Covid-19 pandemic despite global markets being all but shut.
Optimistic forecasts predict it will take at least 18 months before some sense of normality creeps back into the markets. But in reality it could be as long as 24 to 30 months.
The latest BWMB Ulster wool price update placed the average price for the 2019/20 clip at 32p/kg.
For historical comparison, this year’s payment is currently in line with what was paid in the last recession.
“Remember in the Republic of Ireland and Europe, where only spot buying exists, prices have historically been less than half of those paid to Ulster Wool producers,” BWMB said in a lofty attempt to reassure UK wool traders. “Producers marketing their wool through Ulster Wool, their organisation, represents the only realistic prospect of improved prices on a national scale in the medium and long term.”
'A sorry state'
When Robert Kells, a farmer from Milltown spoke to the Celt, he had only just dropped 30 bags (circa two tonne) off to Ulster Wool in Antrim. It was a mix of wool from Robert’s own flock and also sheep he sheared for other farmers.
“The horned wool is worth 5c/kg in the Republic, and 15c for lowland. That’s what they’re quoting,” relays Robert who charges around €2 per sheep shorn.
He appreciates that unless farmers do the work themselves, this aspect of their sheep enterprise is immediately operating at a loss.
Robert suggests, instead of sending wool away, that a processing plant in Ireland could help.
“It’s hard beat doing your own thing. [Wool is] a lovely product. It’s a sorry state to see what has happened.”
While the cost of building a scouring plant might be simple enough, the real financial challenge is dealing with the grit and contaminants in the soiled water after the washing process completes. Ensuring proper filtration and treatment is vital, and expensive.
When Vincent Pierce of Wicklow-based Pierce Laurence Wool Merchants Ltd first went to Bradford in the late ‘70s, wool processing was a thriving industry. There were more than a dozen plants in the city, all boasting steady business. Back then the Pierces had wool depots in nearly every town and village in Ireland. There are now just two scouring plants in Bradford, with one of these reducing through-put by half.
Vincent Pierce estimates Ireland has about 1.5 million kilos of wool left from last year, with six million more kilos coming in 2020. Coupled with the UK surplus and an additional 25million-plus kilos on track, he calculates: “It’s going to take a year, and more, possibly even two or three to get rid of the stock already there.”
When the Celt last spoke to Vincent it was in late 2018, when the industry was navigating what was then regarded as a tricky period. At the time he expressed the opinion it would be “impossible” to revive the Irish wool manufacturing industry as it once was. He stands by that comment.
Vincent’s son David isn’t giving up. This, after all, is an industry not quite yet shorn of all hope.
David began using almost black wool back around the 2000s in the manufacture of insulation. The father-and-son team are now also examining other uses, such as how the keratin proteins in wool trap so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) escaping into the atmosphere.
The Pierces received their first delivery of material to start developing square metre sized wool filtration panels just before the lockdown. Google, for their new building, had reportedly expressed interest.
“[It] is probably on hold now, but that would have been a great boost to get the thing off the ground,” reflects Vincent.
Another prospect is the effect wool might have on neutralising methane. If successful, Vincent envisages, with a chuckle, “woolly roofs” in every slatted shed in the country.
He likens the search for new wool use to how Wallace Hume Carothers at DuPont successfully manufactured Nylon, back in the 1930s. Incidentally, Nylon’s rise in commercialisation can be used to map the decline of wool use over time.
“Wool panels, that’s only one idea - but there has to be plenty of ideas to make this industry viable again. We need labs to come up with alternative uses for wool. Institutes of technology, universities, Ireland, England, any place at all, I don’t know how you’d go about it but put a contract out to find an alternative volume use for wool,” urges Vincent.
Another use being explored is for boosting fertiliser. A study by German scientist Michael Henry Böhme showed sheep wool pellets to be naturally high in nitrogen- 9-1-2 NPK and slow releasing over a three year period.
An analysis of the nutrient content of plants grown in sheep wool pellets showed, for some plant cultures, wool was a successful substitute for mineral fertilisers.
It’s a path that has piqued the interest of Westmeath man Sean McNamara, the ICSA’s sheep committee chairman. Hailing from Lismacaffrey, just south of Granard, Sean runs a large ewe (1,100) and cattle enterprise. This year, when it came to shearing sheep, Sean simply put the wool into storage hoping for a brighter day.
He’s confident that if a dedicated Irish Wool Board were re-established it could go some way to making that happen. He was part of an ICSA deputation that met with then Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed in early 2019. Like Senator Boyhan, they too found the minister closed to the idea of reviving a Wool Board.
The grouping had been promised an hour of the minister’s time. According to Sean the meeting finished after just 10 minutes. A self-confessed “Fine Gael man”, Sean slammed the short encounter as an “absolute scandal”.
With the primary aim to improve the image of Irish wool globally the last ‘An Chomhairle Olla’ ran from 1969 right up to December 1, 1984. It was dissolved and reabsorbed into the Department of Agriculture as a cost-cutting measure introduced by Garret FitzGerald’s short-lived Fine Gael-Labour coalition. At that time wool production in the Republic amounted to 13 million lbs per annum. Ireland exported 5,895 tonnes of wool at a value of over Ir£14m, equivalent to €29.7m today. By contrast, 5,641 tonnes was exported in 2019 valued at only €6.8m.
Sean for one is glad to see the back of ex-minister Creed at the Department. He is now pinning his hope that the replacements can breathe new life into the beleaguered industry. Sean has already lobbied the Green Party’s Minister for State, Pippa Hackett, and is exploring the possibility of buying a pellet making machine.
On the same page is Phelim Molloy, Donegal representative on the national council of the Irish Natura And Hill Farmers Association (INHFA). He wrote about using wool as a fertiliser in the Spring edition of the ‘Farmer’s Guide’ magazine.
Living in the heart of the Finn Valley in Glenswilly, Mr Molloy started his working life in Cavan, as an office clerk operative with An Post back in 1974. Today he has a substantial flock of prize sheep and lambs.
“Effectively Ireland is tied to one outlet at the minute, and that’s England. It’d go then to China for processing. At the minute, as anyone will tell you, there is absolutely no market for wool at all. What we need are alternatives.”
He insists the industry’s foundations must first be laid before an economy can be developed around wool. To push this further, the INHFA are about to embark on a feasibility study into reviving the indigenous wool industry.
“It may well cost a bit of money to establish, but once it’s up and running I can only see the long term benefits to the Irish economy.”
For such a potentially ‘green’ product, it amuses Pheilm that Ireland exports wool to China for processing only to ship it back again at nearly three times its worth.
“So there’s clearly a value there we can tap into. That should be made here in our own country. The way we’re doing things now sees our wool travel around the world twice. It doesn’t make sense.”
But even using wool as a fertiliser isn’t clear cut. Oldroyd & Sons Ltd, producers and packers of high quality fruit and vegetables, are located within the famed Wakefield Triangle. The West Yorkshire family have five generations of experience in rhubarb production and owner Janet Oldroyd Hulme advocates using wool, or ‘shoddy’ as it’s locally known as fertilisers.
However, they’ve hit a roadblock, with farmers advised, based on health and safety, that they can only use wool as fertiliser if they’re prepared to spread it immediately.
“We have to have the shoddy tested, and the land tested, because we, like most other places are considered to be a nitrate vulnerable area,” says Janet. She tells the Celt that when wool is used as a fertiliser it is both “cost effective and works.”
Sean Dennehy, Chair of the IFA Sheep Committee is a lowland sheep farmer from Carrigdrohid, in Macroom where he runs a 76ha farm with a holding of around 300 ewes and 100 replacements by the banks of the River Lee.
The only thing consistent about pricing over the years has been its inconsistency, he observes.
A recurring theme raised by some the Celt spoke with was the prospect of subsidising the wool sector. But Sean dismisses the suggestion contending that when subsidies feature “it quickly becomes a different ball game”.
As a by-product, wool isn’t covered by CAP. Instead wool falls under the remit of Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG Sante). Were subsidies to be paid, it would mean “taking money off other farmers”- a potentially unpopular option.
Sheep numbers worldwide are about half what they were 30 years ago, a trend replicated in Ireland.
In 2016 there were almost 5.2m sheep in the Republic; by 2019 there were just 3.81 million (-26.7%). Cavan had 77,090 sheep, with just over 50,000 of those being breeding ewes; Monaghan had 50,503 (30,093); Leitrim 115,572 (82,451); Longford 36,548 (25,106); and Meath 152,376 (100,413).
Both the Celt and Vincent McGovern have moved from the church car park to one of his nearby storage facilities. He stands inside the rusted steel doorway surrounded by umpteen 200kg bags filled with wool, five large parcels deep.
“I understand better than most the micro-economics of all this. Times have completely changed,” Vincent musters grimly. “We’re probably further back than ever we were.”
Hope is that the current decline is as cyclical as styles in fashion - like when the rise in popularity of UGG boots sparked a short-lived boost for wool fortunes some years back.
Short of a vaccine being found for Covid-19 and the cure being heavy-knit Irish woollen jumpers, Vincent doesn’t see any “quick fix” for the problems facing the industry.
“We seem to be operating in a forgotten industry. It has never been like this before. Right now, even if you’re prepared to make a loss, you still can’t move it.”