Why dump wool when it can help us fight climate change?

WE should be singing from the rooftops about the huge potential Scottish wool offers to our nation’s green recovery.

It is a carbon-storing, environmentally friendly natural resource for insulation, hard wearing carpets and toasty clothing, produced right here on our very own doorstep, but it has never been fully recognised for its green credentials.

Over the years, it has fallen out of favour among clothing manufacturers, with demand for synthetic fibres on the rise to keep pace with the fast fashion movement.

This has driven wool prices into the ground, and left farmers being paid pennies for their fleeces.

Sheep are clipped at the end of spring for animal welfare reasons, letting them discard their winter coats for summer. There was once a time where the process of shearing and selling your wool could make enough money for the farmer to pay the rent of the farm for a whole year, or the wages of a shepherd. But now it doesn’t pay to get the wool off a sheep’s back.

I spoke with a sheep farmer and shearing contractor from Straiton who has been on the receiving end of a disgruntled industry as farmers resent paying for his clipping services, given the little money they get for their wool.

This season, Stevie Dunlop charged £1.30 per head of sheep he clipped, which is roughly the going industry rate, yet his own sheep fleeces were making a return on average of 35 pence per fleece.

Most farmers and crofters sell their fleeces through British Wool, which collects, grades and markets wool on behalf of its 35,000 producers. Stevie packed off 800 fleeces from his own flock to British Wool this July and made £269.13 in return. It would have cost him four times as much to have them clipped, had he not been able to do it himself, so it is no surprise that we are seeing reports in the papers and on social media of farmers and crofters disposing of their wool by burying it or burning it.

The popularity of wool with clothing manufacturers has declined over the years, as its place has been taken by cheaper alternatives can be mass-produced at a low cost. This was further exacerbated by the pandemic, with hospitality closures leading to the demand for wool for carpets in pubs and restaurants disappearing over-night, delivering another blow to wool.

Wool may fast be going out of fashion, but by no means does it come with the carbon price tag of fast fashion. At a time when we are all thinking more deeply about how our choices and actions impact on our planet, it is a no-brainer in Scotland that we should be championing a product which is produced naturally here in abundance.

Unbeknownst to many is the fact that wool has huge potential as a carbon sink. Organic carbon makes up 50 per cent of wool’s weight and is derived from plant material consumed by sheep – it is all part of a natural, renewable system. Many textiles and fibres are made from carbon-based products, but only some, such as wool, are made from atmospheric carbon. Wool garments store carbon dioxide, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere and when it is eventually disposed of and biodegrades, it acts like a fertiliser, slowly releasing valuable nutrients and carbon back into the soil. By comparison, the carbon in the major synthetic apparel fibres, such as polyester or acrylic, is extracted from fossil fuels, de-sequestering carbon stored millions of years ago. These man-made fibres are not biodegradable and contribute significantly to landfill.

Wool is a natural insulator and, due to the crimped nature of wool fibres, forms millions of tiny air pockets that trap air, helping provide a thermal barrier. It can absorb 33% of its weight in moisture without compromising its insulating ability and has great fire-retardant properties – it doesn’t burn easily.

There are more than six million sheep in Scotland that are sheared every year, so this wool should be the first choice for both carpeting and insulation when it comes to new buildings and to upgrading public-sector buildings. It is an easy green solution that politicians and local authorities should be investing in and which, in return, will boost economic return for the nation’s farmers.

Moreover, an alternative and under-valued use for wool is as a mulch for our gardens. It retains water and stops weeds from sprouting. With Scotland in a desperate bid to restore degraded peatlands, sheep wool offers a sustainable, renewable and environmentally friendly alternative to peat.

On a related topic, with the government committed to planting 18,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 – that’s around 38 million new trees – it is ironic that the forestry industry use single-use plastic guards to protect new saplings. We are effectively placing more plastic in our countryside than we need to.

Wool can be turned in to a fantastic tree guard which everyone will agree offers a much more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic guards. It would be great to see a partnership between Forestry and Land Scotland and the farming industry whereby wool can be recycled to support tree-planting targets.

Wool is desperately in need of an image revamp, not only with the public and our politicians but also with farmers themselves, who are viewing it as a waste product, not a highly valuable commodity. But this revamp will need action from on high to place wool at the heart of the country’s insulation plans and a commitment from manufacturers to source sustainable, natural fibres. If wool can be supported to deliver on its full potential it will not only contribute to Scotland’s ambitious net-zero targets but will be a boost to our nation’s farmers, generating much-needed economic activity.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992