Matthew Naylor: It’s time for some woolly thinking

I should visit Yorkshire more often. It is one of Lincolnshire’s neighbouring counties, after all. Despite the proximity, it has a very different character to Lincolnshire and I find the change refreshing.

I have a personality which is prone to extravagance, fanciful ideas and over-complicating things, and a spell in Yorkshire is usually the perfect antidote to my impractical exuberance.

Hearing the plain, good sense of a Yorkshireman at close quarters is reason enough to visit the place, but the county also contains an impressive range of different farming businesses to observe.

I found myself in Harrogate last week presenting a toast at an NFU lunch.

My new year’s resolution was to cut out all public speaking for 12 months but, since I was prevented from giving the same toast last year because of snow, I broke my own rule. I’m pleased that I did – the visit proved to be fascinating.

I was speaking alongside Martin Curtis, joint managing director of the Curtis Wool Direct Group, based in Bradford.

I was aware that the trade in wool had played a big part in the fortunes of Yorkshire in the 18th century, but assumed that our manufacturing capacity had been lost earlier this century.

I was amazed to hear that the Curtis Wool business was capable of scouring up to one million kilos of wool per week and, even at today’s low wool prices, has a turnover of nearly £30 million. They have recently invested an enormous amount of money in new combing facilities which will enable them to produce even higher-quality wool. This is a world-class business.

We farmers rely on people like the Curtis family and their bold investments. I thought that Martin and his brother Simon deserved some sort of farming award for their courage and tenacity.

The audience weren’t with me on that one, though. They were Yorkshiremen, remember. Poor old Martin took a fair bit of stick about the price of wool.

Reading the mood, I avoided saying anything controversial and simply told my saucy joke about Peter Kendall and the cup of tea, rambled a bit and then sat down.

I’ve thought about the wool trade since. I am convinced of the importance of the sheep industry in the UK. As a lover of roast lamb and an evangelist for woollen tank tops, I belong within a slim slither in the Venn diagram of British consumer habits.

The consumption of wool and lamb has been greatly reduced by the availability of man-made fibres and cheap white meat, and sheep products remain much more expensive than the alternatives.

There is little being done by UK sheep farmers to change this state of affairs, but fortunately external factors may help matters.

The rising price of oil is bad news for almost every single branch of agriculture, apart from wind farming and raising sheep. It is virtually possible to farm sheep without even owning a tractor.

The rising cost of oil and cotton will make all other forms of clothing much more expensive. Rising wheat costs could potentially make grass-fed animals more competitive than those fed with grain.

I hope and expect that sheep farmers may soon experience a long overdue renaissance.

The puns are easier than ever today. Altogether now. No one was going to be able to pull the wool over a Yorkshireman’s eyes for long and it looks as though sheep farmers won’t be fleeced in the future.




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