The truth about the British wool industry
The UK wool industry produces over 30,000 tonnes of wool each year – which is collected, sorted, marketed and sold for use in flooring, furniture and clothing.
A significant proportion of Britain’s wool is exported to China and sold to textile manufacturers around the world.
Some of it ends up back in the UK, woven into the clothes we wear, the rugs we furnish our homes with and even the mattresses we sleep on.
As with other farm animals, the legal protections for sheep leave a lot to be desired.
The recommendations set out by the government provide some basic guidelines, such as: Sheep must be sheared at least once a year, shearers should be experienced and properly trained or supervised by someone who is.
Winter shearing is discouraged unless the sheep can be kept indoors until spring and only when their fur has grown back to 15-20mm in length.
Sheep didn’t always have to be sheared. The ability to shed skin naturally has been bred into most breeds of sheep, making shearing an absolute necessity – even for those who live their best lives in shelters.
Wild sheep naturally shed their coarse winter coats by clawing their bodies against trees and rubbing off their excess fur as the weather warms.
However, as the wool of today’s domesticated sheep continues to grow back, farmers must shear their flocks to prevent them from overheating in their thick winter coats and to reduce the risk of fly infestation.
This is a particularly painful and cruel condition caused by flies laying eggs in the fleece and maggots feeding on their flesh.
As prey, sheep are easily startled and the shearing process can be extremely traumatic. The animals are tied up, often pinched between the clipper’s legs, in awkward positions and thrown on their backs.
Although the government advises that shearers should be professionally trained, this is not a legal requirement and since shearers are paid by the number of sheep they shear, the incentive is to rush through the shearing – reducing the risk of injury for the animals increased.
Exposé uncovers animal cruelty on sheep farm
A heartbreaking one expose in 2018 showed how stressful the shearing process can be and how poorly some shearing companies deal with the frightened sheep.
Workers were filmed slapping frightened sheep in the face, banging their heads on the ground, severely punching and kicking them, and throwing them off the shearing trailers.
And when the sheep panicked, the shearers used even more force, stamping, standing and kneeling on their necks and bellies. It’s sickening to think of an animal being treated so appallingly, let alone one as gentle as a sheep.
In addition to the shorn wool from living sheep, the fleece from slaughtered lambs, ewes and rams – also called skin wool – is used in textile production.
However, it is difficult to say what the percentage is because it is so difficult to trace the origin of wool fibers.
Most if not all of it is sold overseas, along with leather hides, but who knows how much of it will return to the UK.