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Irish Wool is at a Crossroads

17 June 2021
Type Media Article

By Bernie Leahy, B&T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc, Galway/Clare

Sheep were first domesticated in Central Asia about 10,000 years ago to provide a ready source of meat, milk, and hides for clothing. As humans worked with the hair from the sheep hides, they found that twisting thin strands of wool fibre together formed a continuous length of yarn.

Irish farmers, however, breed sheep mainly for meat while wool is a secondary product.  The naturally, courser Irish wool of 26mm thickness compared to finer Australian and New Zealand Merino of 18mm thickness has seen an influx of non-native finer wools into our wool weaving industries. Imported Mohair wool from the Angora goat and Cashmere from the Kashmir goat are also found in finer wool cloths.

Slowdown in the Chinese economy, the world biggest wool importer, followed by Russia,  coupled with Covid stagnation of world trade and Brexit disruption have  “floored “ the markets causing a lot of disillusion amongst Irish famers. In the eighties quotes of up to 70 pence per lb were fetched by farmers. Nowadays prices have stabilised to 10c per kg being offered but average prices for 2020/2021 are forecasted to remain at 20c per kg.

More supports for wool production are needed:

Pippa Hackett, Minister of State for Agriculture, has announced a €100,000 feasibility study aimed at developing Ireland’s struggling Wool Industry.  She says that “Wool is a sustainable, organic, renewable natural material which can be used in a wide range of products such as textiles, fertilisers, insulation and packaging”. Stakeholders in the wool industry were asked to make submissions to a Wool Feasibility Study by 2nd April 2021.

Up north, DUP Leader replacement, Edwin Poots announced a compensation scheme for   farmers worth £1.26 Million for the poor price returns of wool. Should our Minister for Agriculture be following his example?

Why supply clean Fleeces?

Under DAFM Cross Compliance, Animal Welfare & Sheep Welfare Schemes, sheep farmers are obliged to shear and dag their sheep and treat sheep for external parasites eg Blowfly.

Dagging and shearing in dry conditions work hand in hand with cleaner fleeces. Winter dipping helps control sheep scab. This notifiable disease, if neglected, reduces animals body condition and of course wool quality for May to June shearing. High time for dipping certs to be introduced again perhaps!

Irish Wool Success Stories:

At Kerry Woollen Mills, Beaufort, Killarney, Weaver, Andrew Eadie’s family has carried on the tradition of weaving since 1904. Yvonne Eadie explained that there are no large scale Wool Washing facilities in Ireland. Strict licencing laws make it difficult to get permits.

She would welcome more research by Teagasc into by-products of wool.

In the past wool was bought locally. Retired Wool Merchant, Pat Lyons of Newtowndaly, Loughrea, was a regular buyer of wool supplying the mills. Nowadays wool is prewashed in the UK and brought back for production and weaving.

The Mills Products range from ornate priests vestments to luxurious blankets and exotic capes, hats and scarves for the tourist market.

The Rare Ould Galway Ewe - Blaitnaid Gallagher of the newly formed Galway Wool Coop has secured a niche market with Kilcar based Donegal Yarns. This high quality native wool is of a medium to fine texture. Galway breeds are also listed as an Irish Rare Breed.

Studio Donegal – this Company, which is also Kilcar based, won the Irish Showcase Crafts Exhibition in 2020 and 2021. Tristan & Anne Donaghy, Directors of the company, produce a range of designer tweed clothing. They are proud to carry on the forty years of creative weaving started by parents Kevin and Wendy.

Joyce Country Wool - Carina and Mark Coyne live on the shores of Lake Nafouey, Finney, Co. Galway. Carina says “All the wool I spin is from sheep here in Joyce Country. I also dye my wool using only natural dye like Lichens, berries, plants, vegetables, and anything that grows in abundance here”. All wool is washed on the farm”. She also looks forward to opening up her business to “Staycation tourists” who can ramble off the Wild Atlantic trail for a different experience.

Diverse Uses of Wool:

Irish wools have always been renowned for their unique properties which allow them to be used in carpet and construction materials alike.

Laurence Pierce (Wool Merchants) Ltd has been trading for over 150 years. Vincent and David Pierce at Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow have expanded the family business in recent years. They invested in Ilyich Wool Washers Ltd in Belarus and wool intake points in Croatia and Greece. “When sheep numbers started to decline in this country, we had to come up with new ideas to stay in business. About 90 per cent of our greasy wool is exported to China, with the remaining 10 per cent going to UK carpet mills,” Vincent explained hence the move abroad to process the wool.

David Pierce set up Sheep Wool Insulation fifteen years ago as a way to make use of black wool insulation for houses. The wool is an environmentally friendly alternative to standard insulation.