Raising Sheep for Wool
Wool has tremendous potential to be used for a huge range of products – and for the smallholder with a bit of imagination, the chance to develop another aspect of their sheep enterprise.
The British Wool Marketing Board, or the Wool Board, is a farmer-run organisation established on co-operative principles, to ensure that all farmers throughout the British Isles, whether large or small, can sell their wool through the Board.
If you choose to process your own wool you can opt out of the Wool Board sales service, otherwise, they will market your wool for you on the international wool market.
The Wool Board also offers a range of useful publications, resources and services to wool producers, including assessing your fleeces, either on the hoof, or the shorn fleece. Fleece quality is highly hereditable, and if you keep a wool breed, a BMWB Certificate of Recommendation can add value to your rams.
Selecting a Breed
Once you’ve decided that you want to keep sheep primarily for their wool, choose your breed carefully, as there are some that are bred specifically for the unique qualities of their fleeces, whether for crimp, colour, fineness or lustre. All these attributes suit different uses, so do your research and make sure the breed you choose will produce the right fibre for the desired end result. See our 'Sheep Breeds' article for further information on the different breeds within the UK.
Producing sheep specifically for their wool – rather than as a by-product of meat production, means you will have to think carefully about how you manage the flock throughout the year – consider the following points:
- Use of marker sprays – many of these are difficult, if not impossible, to wash out of the fleece
- Pour-on insecticide treatments that protect against flystrike – some of these have a persistent effect lasting several months. However, if they are applied soon after spring shearing, their residual effect will have worn off by the end of summer.
- Fleece quality is very much determined by the sheep’s health status – any illness or sudden change in diet can cause weakness in the staple, or even wool break.
- Take special care at shearing time to avoid double cuts, and make sure that kemp and dark fibres don’t find their way into your white wool fleeces.
You may even decide you’d like to learn to shear the flock yourself, and again, the British Wool Marketing Board will be able to help: they run training courses throughout the country, both in hand and machine shearing.
When to Shear
Sheep are usually shorn in the Springtime, but any stress, such as lambing and lactation will be reflected in the fleece quality, so sheep raised specifically for their wool are often shorn in the winter to produce superior quality wool.
Winter-shorn sheep will grow an inch of fleece in the month after shearing, and will need extra feeding and access to shelter in bad weather, but should have sufficient cover before the really bad weather in January and February.
Lambswool is the ultimate in woolly luxury. Lambs’ wool is shorn from lambs up to the age of six months old, ideally once growth is at least 2” or 5cm – any less than this and it’s almost impossible to process into useful fibre.
The next best fleeces are from shearlings – sheep shorn in the first year following their birth. In subsequent years wool quality tends to decrease as the sheep ages, but genetics still plays a large part, and even aged sheep can continue to produce fine fleeces. It’s essential to keep records of which sheep have the best wool ‘genetics’, so that you can retain these for breeding.
When your sheep are shorn, make sure you separate the best fleeces from the rest, and ensure that there aren’t any rough oddments, foreign matter or kemp hair contaminating the fleeces.
Processing Your Raw Fleece
You can of course do the whole job, by hand, yourself. Alternatively, there are mini-mills that will undertake contract scouring and carding of small quantities of fleece into ‘rovings’ for hand spinners and ‘batts’ for felt-makers, or for stuffing toys.
For larger quantities, and if you’re looking to produce a reliably consistent product year-in-year-out, there are full-service mills who will produce yarn for knitting, and worsted yarn for woven fabrics, as well as offering dyeing, felting and weaving services.
Processed wool fibre can be made into a remarkably wide range of secondary products:
- Carpets that are durable and quiet to walk on
- Fillings that make the cosiest duvets
- Yarn for knitting and weaving
- Felt - to make anything from hats to coffins and burial shrouds
And in the built environment, wool’s ability to maintain temperature, resist fire and provide acoustic insulation makes it an ideal insulation material … and at the end of its useful life, it biodegrades naturally and makes an excellent soil improver!
Inspirational ideas for turning your wool into a viable product can be found on our DVD 'Sheep for Business, Enterprise and Profit' - programme 4 in the DVD series 'Sheep on Your Smallholding'