Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Wool price doubles to 120-140c/kg as speculators take a punt on the market

John Shirley

I went to town to sell a load of wool but came home with neither wool nor money. That has been the experience of sheep farmers in recent years when the sale price of the wool was hard pressed to cover the shearing cost. Certainly, the Scotch Blackface fleece has been in negative equity for a number of years.

This is a far cry from the era when the wool cheque paid the farm fertiliser bill.

However, wool looks a bit more promising for the coming season. Over the winter and spring sales, the British Wool Marketing Board had full or almost full clearances with increasing prices. Last month's sale saw an average price of Stg170p/kg with a 96pc clearance.


Again, as in most commodities these days, the world wool price is being driven by speculators. Goldman Sachs and its peers are now playing with wool too.

Irish merchants are talking in terms of 120-140c/kg for the new season's lowland clip, and maybe 50-80c/kg for Scotch wool. This is almost double the opening prices of last year, but it still looks low by the British standards, even if we are not fully comparing like with like.

In any event, sheep will have to be shorn and the warm days in April prompted thoughts of doing the job earlier this year. Certainly, if ewes were going onto their backs or if you encountered fly strike, you would be tempted to take off the wool.

Yet we have to be careful with ewes suckling lambs that we don't shear too early. A cold, wet spell post-shearing can knock back the ewe's milk or even trigger grass tetany.

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It seems that more sheep farmers are doing their own shearing in an effort to cut costs. Whoever does it, shearing is hard, back-breaking work and a better way of slimming down a belly than going to any gym.

A little organisation will reduce some of the drudgery from the job. Apart from the actual shearing, the biggest job is catching the sheep for the shearer. Owners of bigger flocks are installing catching pens with spring-loaded doors where the shearer can grab a sheep and back out with it. Others have invented a race where a decoy sheep is tied at the front and the sheep behind are taken out of the side for shearing. Again, a spring-loaded door closes the gap.

It always helps if the lambs are removed from the flock pre-shearing. Also, sheep are easier to handle if they have been fasted for a period. The tidier sheep farmers will have daggings removed from their animals pre-shearing.

A few sheep breeding pioneers are trying out sheep that do not need shearing. These include Des Donohoe, from Oldcastle, Co Meath, and Campbell Tweed, from Larne, Co Antrim, who have imported the 'Easy Care' sheep breed from Iolo Owens in Wales. These sheep grow hair rather than wool and, like cattle, they shed their coats every spring.


Apart from not having to shear them, these sheep are also free from flystrike. Until recently, Mr Donohoe said that he was unable to meet the demand for 'Easy Care' breeding sheep, but lately this has eased. Maybe the rise in the wool price has had an effect on peoples' attitudes.

There is no doubt that sheep shearing will continue to be part of the Irish farming scene, and events such as the All-Ireland and International Sheep Shearing and Wool Festival will continue to celebrate this activity.

This year, the above festival will take place in the Cillin Hill Exhibition Centre, Kilkenny, over the June bank holiday (June 4 and 5).

If you are a bit woolly about something to do that weekend, Cillin Hill will be of interest to both sheep farmers and those not lucky enough to be involved with these creatures.

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