Battleground at home as British wool exports to China double

Yorkshire's top five sheep breeds for wool produced 1.7million kg of the fabric in 2014. Pic: Simon Hulme
Yorkshire's top five sheep breeds for wool produced 1.7million kg of the fabric in 2014. Pic: Simon Hulme
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THE REGION’S sheep farmers are well placed to capitalise on a soaring international demand for British wool but many still need to be convinced that producing the raw fabric can be profitable.

Exports to China having doubled over the last two years, with Yorkshire’s top five sheep breeds producing 1.7million kg of wool in 2014/15.

With more wool now being produced from two of those breeds, the mule and the Texel, the future of the county’s wool producers looks bright, the British Wool Marketing Board said.

The improved overseas trading was reflected in the performance of the Bradford-based board, which recorded a 2.6 per cent rise in the volume of wool sold through its auction system between July 2014 and June 2015 - more than 28.5m kg of wool in total.

Ian Hartley, chief executive of the board, said wool was increasingly seen as an environmentally-friendly alternative to man-made fabrics: “There is a rising trend towards wool and other natural fibres. Environmental and health concerns are increasingly influencing consumer choices, extending beyond food to fibre choices.”

And he added: “Yorkshire farmers have benefited from the boom in British wool exports to China. It is anticipated that approximately 30-35 per cent of UK wool is currently being exported to China. This percentage is still below that of other wool producing countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, but with the rapidly expanding economy in China it is expected that this will increase.”

UK exports of the fabric are now shipped to 50 countries, more than ever before, and last year exports were valued at almost £200m.

Despite the success, Britain’s wool industry has shrunk in recent decades, with the UK’s largest wool buyer and processor, Bradford-based firm Curtis Wool Direct. It buys wool from across the world, scours and combs the fabric and sells it to industry.

Owner, Martin Curtis, said: “Export trading to China has been particularly good but it is only part of the jigsaw. We also have an extremely important home base here in the UK.”

British wool is mainly used in the furnishings sector, but as well as competing with cheaper synthetic materials a battle remains to convince farmers they can make a profit from sheep fleeces.

Mr Curtis said: “Wool is always going to be a by-product because the value of wool is lower than the price of meat, but the wool price has been growing significantly in recent years.”

The British Wool Marketing Board announced its 2015 guide wool clip values last month. At £1.35 per kg, wool from the Cheviot is priced highest.

Mr Curtis said: “There are discrepancies in prices for different qualities of wool from different breeds of sheep. The very expensive wools tend to be the finer, heritage wools such as from the Blue Faced Leicester, Wensleydale and Teeswater but some of the courser wools are exceptionally good for certain types of products.”

The wool industry promotes the natural qualities of British wool through the Campaign for Wool, and this week a new wool carpet focus group of manufacturers, buyers, distributors and retailers, is holding its first major meeting to discuss the promotion of wool carpets to customers.