Coronavirus: Fears mount of sheep shearing shortage

Concerns are growing about a likely shortage of sheep shearers this season amid travel restrictions for overseas workers due to Covid-19.

Sheep shearing gangs, especially from Australia and New Zealand, usually travel to the UK to work the summer.

But the influx of highly skilled workers has not happened this year and many have chosen to stay away due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

See also: How shearing lambs can improve growth and reduce labour

It is estimated that overseas shearers usually shear about 20% of the flock, with skilled workers able to shear about 300 sheep a day.

Sheep shearing is vitally important to safeguard the health and welfare of the British sheep flock and to minimise the risk of heat stress and fly strike. For welfare reasons, all sheep except wool shedding breeds need to be shorn annually.

Online register

Moves are afoot within the industry to alleviate the problem through the launch of a national online sheep shearing register to bring together shearing contractors and skilled, proficient shearers.

“I know that British Wool has joined forces with the National Association of Agricultural Contractors (NAAC) and other industry bodies to get a shearing register up and running,” said Will Terry, the NFU North East’s livestock board chairman.

“This is a great start – allowing shearers and sheep farmers alike to go online and find each other. But we may have to think in broader terms about how to fill the gap left by the shearing gangs that usually descend from New Zealand.”

Mr Terry, who farms at Ravenscar, North Yorkshire, said the void could present a real opportunity for younger, up-and-coming shearers, or those with limited experience to brush up on their skills and help deliver the national clip.

“Honestly, I think we will need all the help we can get this year to meet our sheep health obligations, and this will be made all the more challenging by the need to adhere to social distancing practices,” he added.

Low prices

NFU Cymru said the sheep wool sector in Wales has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. Wool is experiencing significant price reductions as the world wool market comes under pressure, due to reduced demand and fluctuating currency rates linked to the global effects of the virus.

As a result, the British Wool Marketing Board still has around 9m kg of unsold stock out of a total 2019-20 clip of 27m kg of wool to sell, so it is unable to pay an advance payment for 2020 wool.

“The value of wool products also needs to be recognised by consumers, including the environmental benefits of clothes made from natural fibres and their thermal value,” said NFU Cymru livestock board chairman Wyn Evans.

“Much more needs to be done to sell this natural product; we need a concerted campaign.”

• British Wool has produced a series of videos on YouTube to act as a useful refresher for anyone whose skills are a bit rusty, and the chance to help out and learn from experienced shearers on the job.