The hair of the cashmere goat, native to much of Asia, has been the basis of a luxury Scottish textile industry for 200 years, imported mainly from China. But now the Chinese, with a burgeoning middle class demanding their own luxury goods, are keeping the best cashmere for themselves.
The Scots are responding by raising their own herds of the small and delicate goats, but the future looks uncertain as the Government is refusing to offer farmers subsidies, similar to the £30-a-head subsidy for sheep, which would encourage them to diversify into goat rearing.
Last year 1,200 tons of the snowy white fibres were shipped to Scotland to be dyed, spun, and knitted into jumpers, scarves and jackets. But instead of tending the goats in China's remote hills , combing the hair from their underbellies and then shipping it abroad, the Chinese are also spinning and dyeing it themselves, causing prices of the remaining exported stocks to soar in the past year by 140 per cent.
Finding alternative cheaper supplies of cashmere closer to home would be an ideal solution for the Scottish cashmere trade, which employs 10,000 people. In recent years research scientists have developed a breed of cashmere goat suited to the Scottish climate and terrain. The project has been so successful that James Sugden, managing director of Johnston's of Elgin, one of the leading cashmere houses, describes the fibre as "equal to the best we can get from China".
He said: "There is a grave crisis in the supply of cashmere. The drive to capitalism has increased the demands of the Chinese home market and the best fibres are just no longer available. Quality is deteriorating. Some of the traders are even adding other fibres such as wool to the mix.
"It is chaos in China. Last year was the worst I have known in 25 years, and I went over four times trying to secure supplies. That is why it is so important to have alternative supplies on our doorstep."
Today there are 5,000 cashmere goats on Scottish farms, but with one sweater taking the clip of three goats, they are providing only a minute supply. But the Government's refusal of subsidy is jeopardising these attempts to provide extra supplies.
Instead, the McAuley Institute in Aberdeen, which has developed the Scottish cashmere goat, has found a steady demand from Spanish, Greek and Italian farmers whose own governments will pay them substantial subsidies for the animals. So far, 275 kids and 200 frozen embryos have been exported to Italy.
A senior research scientist, Dr Angus Russell, said: "Our goats are as good as any you can find in Asia, and would be an ideal animal for farmers in the uplands and highlands of Scotland to husband. But it is impossible for the goats to compete with sheep if there is no subsidy.
"We have spent five years developing this strain of goat, and just when we have done all the research the only people to benefit will be farmers elsewhere in Europe."
The Cashmere Producers' Association is urging the Ministry of Agriculture and the Scottish Office to think again about the refusal of subsidy for goats. John Barker, the association's spokesman, believes there are nearly 100 Scottish farmers who have succeeded in producing high quality cashmere from their animals.
"If we are going to produce a viable alternative supply for the mills then we are going to have to provide some sort of subsidy," he said.
Meanwhile, for those farmers keen to try their hand at goat husbandry, or amateurs wanting a ready supply of jumpers, the co-operative venture, Cashmere Breeders, can provide a "starter pack" of 12 does and one buck - enough for four warm winter sweaters.