Sheep shearers from abroad are to be fast-tracked through immigration to prevent a shortage of labour during the UK shearing season.

Fears had been growing that tighter immigration laws, introduced this year, would make it too costly and time-consuming for shearers from New Zealand and Australia to consider coming to the UK.

But a joint effort by the National Association of Agricultural Contractors, the sheep industry and Conservatives agricultural spokesman Jim Paice, prompted DEFRA and the Home Office to look into the issue.

In a letter to DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn Mr Paice said: “As a result of the points-based system for skilled work applicants, we are facing a real shortage of sheep shearers.

“Without experienced and competent shearers to undertake this important job, millions of sheep could be left with heavy coats and vulnerable to increased disease and discomfort.”

The Home Office and DEFRA had made significant steps to bring in this vital workforce by speeding up processing times in New Zealand and Australia from 12 to a maximum of three weeks, said Jill Hewitt, NAAC chief executive.

“This should get some of the shearers into the UK ready for the start of the shearing season.

“Shearers already working in America and Europe will also be given a special concession to allow them to gain entry clearance without returning to their country of residence.

“We cannot underestimate the importance of this decision,” said Ms Hewitt.

The UK depends on 500 shearers from overseas to shear the UK flock. By April just one shearer had signed the paperwork.