Future of Irish wool may be in insulation rather than Aran jumpers

New markets for wool could provide a solution for farmers struggling to meet shearing costs

Carlow farmer Marion Dalton has four years’ worth of sheep’s wool stored in her shed. With Irish farmers being offered 20 cent per kilogram of lowland wool, she has been holding out for an unexpected turnabout.

Although her primary earning is from sheep meat, wool shorn each year from her 200 Borris ewes used to bring in enough to buy a few things for the farm, she says. “Then it became that we only had money to cover the shearer’s costs. Now we are in debt with the whole thing,” she says.

Chair of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) sheep committee, Kevin Comiskey says farmers have been tentatively awaiting the outcome of the Department of Agriculture’s wool feasibility study, which was aimed at identifying domestic and international market opportunities for wool products.

The underlying objective of the study, which was published in July, was to get a higher proportion of wool’s value into the hands of farmers. It says farmers can pay over €2 to have a sheep shorn, while, in some cases, they receive 5 cent per kilo of Scotch Mountain wool and 20 cent for lowland wool.

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There was “nothing really new that stood out” in the report, is Comiskey’s response to it. With the rising price of fuel, feed and fertiliser, sheep farmers have once again returned to below “break-even territory”, and more Government support is needed, says the Co Leitrim farmer.

Selling wool was never the main aim of his farming, but when he received 70 pence for a pound of clippings he could purchase extra farm tools, including a second-hand jeep one year, he recalls.

Wool sheared from his sheep in early June is currently bagged and stored, awaiting a better indication of this year’s market price which will be “nowhere near what it costs to shear” the sheep.

Comiskey does not mind what happens to the wool after it leaves his land as long as whatever market it enters can ensure a “fair price for farmers”.

The feasibility study recommends establishing an “Irish grown” Wool Council that would champion indigenous wool brands and encourage collaboration between disparate stakeholders. The department will provide €30,000 towards set-up costs of the voluntary body.

A highly fragmented sector, the situation where individual farmers primarily sell raw wool directly to domestic and large UK wool merchants presents a challenge to getting a higher yield for farmers, it says. A key stage of value creation is when the wool is professionally graded, which is currently too far from the farm, it adds.

Tipperary wool merchant Kevin Dooley, who followed in the footsteps of his father, is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a wool council and more Government intervention in the sector.

“The report mainly highlights what most people at the centre of the Irish wool industry already knew,” he says. He agrees with the recommendation that there needs to be more cooperation between the disparate stakeholders and is open to “anything that makes the industry work”.

There is no wool-processing facility on this island. Instead merchants like him pull and grade the wool before exporting it to processing hubs such as in Bradford in England.

Too coarse for skin-contact clothing, the majority of Irish lowland wool goes on to be used in hardy carpets that line cruise ships and hotels, predominantly manufactured in Asia, with a much smaller proportion heading to higher quality textiles, says Dooley.

Dooley’s father, Seamus Dooley, recalls paying “one old pound per pound” of wool 50 years ago. “There was no bother selling wool back when I started. Until 15 years ago I could move it all the time and wool was a decent price then,” says the 86-year-old.

The wool was in “lovely condition” back then, says Dooley snr. Now it is dirtier and “thrown into a bag in any way and every way”, and that costs more to handle, he says.

Kevin Dooley agrees there is a gap between farmers’ price expectations and the quality of raw, greasy wool they are sending on to merchants. He thinks wool should be promoted as a natural, biodegradable product that is more environmentally-friendly than synthetic imports from China.

“We have this fibre growing in the country and we are totally ignoring it… That will eventually click with somebody somewhere. I just hope we will all be in the industry to see it happen,” he says.

The proposed hub for academic research on new domestic market opportunities is appealing to Galway Wool Co-op co-founder, Blatnaid Gallagher.

Ireland cannot make “10 million kilos of really scratchy, itchy jumpers”, she says, but there is potential for a homegrown market that focuses on sustainable home interiors.

Gallagher welcomes that the study acknowledges a need for an “Irish grown” wool brand backed by strong “story” marketing. She has long spoken out against what she believes is “misleading” marketing around wool products in Ireland, and she would have liked the study to propose legislation to tackle it.

Many of the recognisable Irish wool brands use wool imported from the Southern Hemisphere that is simply milled here, she says. “Imagine we were getting milk from France and calling it Irish.”

The co-op collaborates with Chris Weiniger of Donegal Yarns, which is one of the leading suppliers of spun Irish wool yarn for use in textiles, and there are some other brands recognising the importance of “Irish-grown”, she adds.

The Government could switch its procurement focus and opt for Irish-grown wool as a sustainable insulation material, she says. Whatever the market it must be sustainable as the younger generation seeks “transparency and authenticity” in its products.

This conviction is partly what led to her establishing the Galway Wool Co-op, which comprises 60 native “dual-purpose” flocks all over Ireland where more focus is put on the care and quality of the fleece. The co-op can command a price of €2.50 per kilo of “teddy bear fleece” from such dual-purpose flocks.

Irish sheep farmers who focus their energy almost entirely on meat production cannot expect to get a good price for the wool, she says. She adds that dual-purpose breeds can help solve this problem if only farmers and the Department of Agriculture spot their potential.