The company that handles most of the Shetland wool produced in the isles is to offer crofters and farmers greatly increased prices in a bid to boost production.
Prices to be offered this year will show the highest increase for 40 years, according to J & S Shetland Wool Brokers managing director Oliver Henry.
This is being done to encourage producers to keep native breeds as there is a serious shortage of Shetland hill wool, especially the coloured varieties. The move comes after efforts by the wool brokers to develop new products, including carpeting, to stimulate demand for the traditional wool.
This year the “superior” grade, the finest Shetland natural coloured fleece, will attract a price of £2 per kilo, up from 90p per kilo last year. This represents a 220 per cent increase to the crofter or farmer. Other grades of coloured wool show increases of 45 per cent and 66 per cent per kilo.
The price of white wool will also have a significant increase of between 32 and 47 per cent in some grades, with the finest being £1.15 per kilo, an increase of 28p on last year’s price.
Mr Henry said: “Crofters have been asking what we [J & S Shetland Wool Brokers] are doing about the price of wool. We are creating real Shetland wool products to try to get better prices for the Shetland wool clip.
“We are offering these attractive prices in order to encourage producers to retain these unique sheep, which produce the finest wool of its type to be found anywhere in the world.
“When we consider that a few years ago, producers were receiving as low as 5p or 25p per kilo for coloured Shetland wool, this is indeed a major boost.”
There has been a vast reduction in the Shetland hill wool, especially in native coloured sheep – the Shetland black sheep has virtually disappeared, said Mr Henry. The situation has become critical, with his company taking in the low amount of 10,000 kilos of coloured wool out of a grand total of approximately 242,000 kilos purchased last year.
|The wool brokers’ products can be seen displayed in a store behind the shop. This store, attractively restored with its original pitch pine timber, was once a police station. It is mentioned in Lerwick’s valuation roll of 1906-7, and dealt with the seasonal influx of workers who travelled the coast for the herring gutting. The building last functioned as a police station in 1935. The pitch pine timber probably came in after that date, when it became a gutters hut.|
The building, which was made of corrugated iron, was originally home to the police officer and his family and had two cells, which were accessed by going through a family bedroom. When renovations were carried out the walls were found to be lined with pages from The Shetland Times, and this has been re-created in the restoration.
The J & S shop was also linked to the herring trade. It was built as the North Road United Free Church between 1907-8, conveniently situated near the gutting stations.
Several factors are responsible for the reduction in sheep numbers, he said, especially increasing regulation. The scrapie scheme in 2007-8, in which many sheep were put down for fear of BSE spreading to them, meant the loss of “thousands and thousands” of Shetland sheep, including many coloured animals which were of the blood-type that was susceptible.
According to secretary of the Shetland Sheep Flock Book Society Jim Nicolson the scheme was “totally unnecessary” as a testing scheme was already in place. He said: “A whole group of perfectly healthy sheep were removed.”
Now, said Mr Henry, electronic tagging is also taking numbers down. It is a scheme which is geared to big farmers on the mainland, not a crofter with 30 or 40 animals. Mr Nicolson agreed that the scheme would be useful for intensive farming but tags do not always remain in place and it was “yet more record-keeping” for small crofters.
Four or five years ago a subsidy kept sheep on the hill, he said, but now changes in the system mean that crofters do not need to keep as many sheep as previously to qualify for payment.
In any case crofters and farmers nowadays generally prefer to work with larger and more valuable cross-breed sheep, Mr Henry said. Shetland sheep are seen as more time-consuming and it has traditionally been a communal effort to gather them in (which also makes a job like ear-tagging more difficult).
One crofter said that wool from a cross-bred lamb was only worth a fraction of what the lamb was worth, and in general wool would not contribute “significant” income. “Very few people would take a business decision based on wool. Prices going up would be encouraging but it would be a few years before [the benefits] come through.”
That is why, said Mr Henry, Shetland’s native breeds need the support of government, whether at Scottish, UK or European level. “They are fragile breeds, they need a bit of help,” he said.
All the new regulations (which include one from 2003 stating that the wool brokers must have a licence to handle wool) make life more difficult for crofters and farmers. This licensing regulation was prompted by the fear of contamination from sheep disease spreading from Shetland to the mainland. All wool leaving Shetland must now pass strict controls which are put in place by the Scottish government. “[Governments] do not understand the fragility and tradition,” Mr Henry said.
To encourage the demand for native wool J & S has devised new products in conjunction with Shetland College, which has machines capable of producing yardage of anything from Fair Isle to one ply lace.
J & S hand-sort the Shetland coloured wool to separate the different qualities of wool that can be found in a single fleece (and is looking at ways of sorting the white wool, as hand-sorted wool commands higher prices).
The coarser “guard hair” can be found in a fleece that will have the softer finer wool at the neck and shoulders. The two have to be separated to avoid an “itchy” handle to the finished product. The coarser wool historically was almost worthless and kept coloured wool prices down. This meant there was no incentive to keep native coloured sheep breeds.
But this situation has changed in recent years – the rougher heavier wool guard hair, which there was previously “no home for”, is now used for carpeting. This means that all the fleece is used. The carpeting is made in Yorkshire but Mr Henry hopes to get a whipping machine to sew and bind the edges of runners and rugs.
He said: “All these new products plus carpets, are part of our Real Shetland marketing strategy, which we have been working on for a few years now and are still developing even more new products. All this endeavour is starting to pay dividends, both to us, the college, and most important, the wool producer.”
J & S Shetland Wool Brokers handle wool from approximately 750 producers which represents well over 80 per cent of the local clip.
Mr Henry said: “We can assure local wool producers we are working hard to increase their wool returns and hopefully to endeavour to hold and increase these prices in future years.
“We require the Shetland wool producers’ support and need all the wool we can purchase to service all our demands for Shetland wool.”
The company’s primary responsibility is to the Shetland wool producer, he said, and assured them: “We are doing everything we can and need as much as we can possibly buy.”