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Sheep shearing and wool production in the UK

Sheep shearing and wool production has been an important part of the UK's sheep industry over the last six thousand years. The earliest sheep had pigmented coats and moulted allowing farmers to collect the fallen wool but as time went on breeds developed with improved wool characteristics. By the middle ages wool was the UK's most important output, being exported throughout Europe. Later, as exports declined, production was used domestically in the fast growing cloth industries where technological advance fueled the industrial revolution and the move from an agrarian to urban society.

sheep waiting for a hair cutWool is a modified form of hair that grows with a waviness (called the crimp) which is characteristic of the breed of sheep. Fleeces of British sheep can be classified into three main types: carpet wools, down wools and long wools each with differing end uses.

woolFor many centuries wool was the UK's most important export and through the cloth trade led to the development of many of the nation's industrial towns. Today the UK remains an important producer (7th largest in the world) exporting around one third of the annual 60,000 tonne clip. However, with wool prices at about 50 pence per kilogram the value of the raw wool that is exported is little more than £10 million and for most farmers the value of the wool does not cover the cost of shearing.

shearing sheepSheep are either sheared in the early summer months, or immediately prior to winter housing. Since sheep breeds no longer naturally moult, shearing is necessary to prevent the animal from overheating either when indoors, or outside during hot summer months. When shorn, sheep are also much less prone to fly strike.

shearing sheepSheep are usually shorn on a wooden board that can easily be cleaned through the shearing process to avoid faecal contamination of the fleece. Fleeces can also be spoiled by marker paint, brambles and other contaminants - all of which lower the value.

shorn fleece is carefully rolled and tiedThe shorn fleece is carefully rolled and tied by its own wool before being placed in a woolsack. Please note that this picture is for illustration and that the wool would normally be rolled on a sheet and not upon the grass.

Indoor shearingIndoor shearing with a woolsack supported by a frame for easier filling. Shearing is usually carried out by shearers from Australia and New Zealand who travel the world to shear sheep all year round. This "shearing circuit" is seen as a way to save money to start farming.

Woolsacks awaiting collectionWoolsacks awaiting collection. The Lord Chancellor's woolsack in the House of Lords is similar to these and reflects the economic importance of wool through the ages.

collecting bags of fleeceMost wool in the UK is marketed through The British Wool Marketing Board which co-ordinates the collection and sale of wool from around 70,000 registered producers. Wool is graded, pooled and sold throughout the year at public auction, some of which are live online.

a quality fleeceWool is an extremely versatile product that lends itself to use in clothing and carpets. Wool is wear resistant, provides good insulative properties as well as being able to absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture without feeling wet. Despite these qualities wool, has been widely displaced by the use of cheaper synthetic fibres.

wool logoWoollen clothing with the charcteristic "Pure new wool" marque. Wool is now a premium product but for much of the last 6000 years it has been the mainstay of clothing in all grades and qualities.

Statistics for sheep

Total marketings sheep
19 635 13 322 15 342 15 436 15 493 16 539 16 590 16 036 16 989 15 911 14 440
Sheep value of production
(£ millions)
900 566 838 929 984 686 709 641 798 967 979
Sheep subsidies
(£ millions)
284 128 225 233 258
Home fed sheep as % new supply
98% 78% 85% 86% 85% 90% 88% 84% 89% 89% 92%

June Census statistics for sheep

Ewes for sheep breeding
6,011,818 6,140,062 3,777,237 4,933,363 5,053,605 3,104,468 5,034,240 4,454,664 6,544,829 7,745,588 7,829,104 14,740,000
Other sheep 1 year and above
3,454,142 3,338,401 3,338,401 1,838,059 2,135,570 1,565,386 1,740,016 1,484,788 1,751,100 2,270,980 1,596,231 551,000
Other sheep and lambs under 1 year
6,378,753 6,795,055 4,084,874 5,442,016 5,980,532 3,836,473 6,257,376 5,688,003 7,427,117 10,759,310 9,719,010 15,431,000
Total sheep and lambs
15,844,713 16,273,518 10,224,664 12,213,438 13,169,707 8,506,327 13,031,632 11,627,455 14,554,451 20,775,878 19,144,345 31,084,000