This little guy is one of the 30+ million sheep that New Zealand is so famous for.
New Zealand’s wool industry is actually mostly coarse wool, of which the Romney breed forms the basis. Coarse wool is the wool that you find in the carpets under your feet. It’s strong. It doesn’t felt. It won’t pill. It will last you for years and years and stay fresh looking. It does not harbour static electricity. Homes and businesses with cool carpeting find the atmosphere healthier than one with synthetic carpeting. New Zealand Wool has done a good job of explaining the healthy properties of wool – have a look at this link.
Romney wool can also be used in knitting and crocheting, as may spinners will jump to tell you – you just have to have a finer grade of the wool.
According to “A Short History of Sheep in New Zealand” by Richard Wolfe, wool’s heyday was in the 1950’s and 60’s, when there were 50 million sheep in New Zealand. Wool was so valuable that it was even taken off the backs of sheep that had died in the field. New Zealand was the world’s largest exporter of mutton and lamb, and only Australia exported more wool. A major proportion of these products ended up on one place – Britain, which took 43.3% of all our exports.
However, in the next decade, New Zealand farmers experienced a decline in income relative to other sectors of the community, as a result of several factors, including increasing interest rates, wages, killing charges, transport costs and land values. When Britain signed up with the European Community in 1974, New Zealand lost its traditional market and faced the prospect of international competition.
Many years followed where the New Zealand Government effectively propped up the market. By the early 1980’s, New Zealand farmers were said to be receiving 40% of their income from subsidies. There were 70 million sheep in New Zealand – an all time high.
A change of government in 1984 began the decline in sheep numbers as these subsidies were removed. By July 2002, the sheep population had fallen to 40 million. The latest figures I have been able to find indicate there were 32 million sheep in New Zealand in 2010.
After decades of global decline in wool prices, various bodies, including New Zealand Wool, and most famously, HRH The Prince of Wales’ Campaign for Wool, have been working hard to help farmers stay in sheep (the rate of farms converting to dairy in New Zealand is horrendous, with great impact on the environment and sustainability of our water resources).
In the past 12 months, the price of wool has begun to climb globally. It’s now at its highest price in 20 years. Reports indicate that this rise has been helped in part by carpet manufacturers rebuilding inventories they had let run down during the global economic crisis. Conversions to dairying and the subsequent drop in sheep numbers are playing a part too.
An increase in wool promotion in Europe and the United States, and increased demand from carpet manufacturers for a fibre guaranteed to be free of chemical residues appears to also be helping.
Although this isn’t fantastic news for our pockets (better stock up knitters – there are price rises coming), life is much better for farmers than a few years ago when the price of wool did not cover the $3 a head it cost to shear a sheep.
I feel much more hopeful about the future of wool now than I did a few years ago. As long as the price of wool doesn’t go as crazy as dairy, turning it into the right of only the rich, I’ll be very happy.