7 June 2002

Wool spins some hope

for a tough environment

AS hill-farming families are put under increasing pressure, Anne Askew, Pikeside Farm, Duddon Valley, Cumbria, was uneasy accepting handouts. She wanted to promote the natural resources she had – the fleece roaming the surrounding fells.

Along with other farms in the valley: Old Hall Farm, Folds Farm, Rawfold Farm and Moss Cottage, she has established a cooperative project processing the fleece which offers everyone in the valley the possibility of coming out the right side of the grim environment.

With her husband, Jack, she runs 500 breeding ewes plus followers of Herdwick, Swaledale, Cheviot and Cheviot-cross. They are also experimenting with wool from 500 Black Mountain belonging to local farmer, David Thornely, and weaving it into natural monotone, plaid.

&#42 Not diversification

"What we are doing is not really diversification," Anne explained, "because we are not entering an area we know nothing about. We wanted everyone to realise that were not just dabbling. Our aim was to get into enough production to help everybody involved. Our five farms, produce 4000 fleeces/year and once we started talking these sort of amounts to the weavers they were very keen to help because they felt it had great potential."

Duddon Valley farmers have little time for suggestions that they should be paid to manage the scenery for tourists. "Unless you are actually involved at the coal face, most people dont realise how much hard work goes into keeping the walls up, or maintaining the rotations. I dont think any of us could do it for someone else," said Anne. "We are not just rearing a few animals; the particular animals and breeds we keep maintain the fells as we see them. We have created that landscape but in doing that, it becomes very much a part of us. Its hard to explain. Weve all had to come to terms with this over the past few 12 months. We dont want to let go, we want to survive."

She persuaded the Wool Board to grant them a three-year licence to manufacture and sell their own goods. Now the co-op is looking into processing more wool and marketing the various products. Trial runs of their floor rug range have shown the natural fire retardant quality, together with the hard wearing features of Herdwick wool, result in excellent hearth rugs.

"Throughout the last year of our feasibility study, the public in general have shown enormous interest in the work we have done. It is an opportunity to bridge the gap between rural and urban lives and for hill farm change, with the emphasis on keeping sheep for wool as the primary business."

"Our wool is different from one year to the next, and so our throws and rugs are too. We clip and bale the wool ourselves and then it is packed off, following the route of the old wool trail used for processing at a time when wool was a valued primary product of the Lake District.

&#42 Colourful idea

"First it is washed in the soft waters of Yorkshire. Then it is taken across the border to be spun by Alan Barrowclough in the New Lanark Heritage centre on an 18th century spinning mule. He put together the whole idea of colour for the co-op, and explained that if the fleeces from the older sheep were separated from the younger sheep, and breeds kept apart, they could produce very different colours that could work to their advantage. The wool is woven by Andrew Elliot Ltd of Selkirk who use the designs created specifically to express the character of the undyed fell yarn.

"The intention is to make as wide a selection of products as possible to broaden the market. Our products have met encouraging response and we feel they deserve a premium price to reflect their high natural quality."

Shearing takes place in July/August each year – they have to plan ahead for future products. The aim is to add sufficient value to the product to be able to afford to employ shearers so that it is a profitable exercise rather than a loss. The sorting and grading of the wool and the packaging and marketing will require a great deal of part time input which will suit local families with flexible commitments.

Michael Edwards

Hill farmer Anne Askew wants the emphasis put back on keeping sheep for wool and she

is working with other Cumbrian farmers to produce distinctive woollen goods.