Lack of shearers could cause trouble for Britain's wool trade

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The Independent Online

The shires of England would normally resound to the twang of antipodean accents this week, with shearers from Australia and New Zealand arriving for the annual "clip" of Britain's 22 million sheep.

The shires of England would normally resound to the twang of antipodean accents this week, with shearers from Australia and New Zealand arriving for the annual "clip" of Britain's 22 million sheep.

But this year the prospect of taking foot-and-mouth back to their home country has scared off the visiting shearers. With British workers unlikely to fill the shortfall, there are concerns that the no-show will have serious implications for the wool industry. This year's haul of wool will take longer to shear and restrictions on movement in the countryside mean it is still unclear how or when it will be collected.

The delay will push up wool prices and could threaten supplies to manufacturers. Mark Stokoe, a shearing contractor working across Bedfordshire and Northampton- shire, said most businesses would be facing a 25 to 50 per cent shortage of labour. "A lot of the foreign shearers are not coming because they were under the impression that the whole country was under siege and there were huge amounts of animals being slaughtered. People felt there would not be a large number of sheep to shear and they were reluctant to come and risk taking the disease back with them to New Zealand," he said.

The shortage would first hit farmers after the third week of May, when the weather warmed up and they wanted their sheep sheared quickly, Mr Stokoe added. Contractors would not be able to get round farms as fast as normal and were likely to concentrate on big concerns first, leaving small farms to the end.

The delay could cause animal welfare problems because the longer sheep are left before they are sheared, the more likely their coats are to become infested with flies, which destroys the wool fibre. Sheep left with thick fleeces throughout the summer could also suffer from the heat.

Liz Ambler, of the British Wool Marketing Board, said young farmers were being encouraged to shear their own sheep and student shearers would be given more experience than normal. Although the board has agreed procedures with the Government for shearing sheep, it has not been able to draw up a similar code to prevent the disease being spread by collecting the wool.

Board members met officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last Thursday. They hope to be able to advise contractors how to collect in non-infected areas this week. As yet, though, there is no agreement on how wool can be collected from infected areas.

Wool is normally collected between May and October, but Ms Ambler said this year it would not start until September and was unlikely to finish before November. Industry estimates suggest this year's haul will be at least two million kilograms short. Wool prices have already risen by 10 per cent in anticipation of a shortfall.

Alan Folwell, managing director of the carpet makers Brintons, the country's biggest individual user of British wool, said: "We are not talking about the supply chain collapsing but we are watching it carefully. It's not likely to lead to any disaster provided we get the clip through in August and September. If there is not fleece available then, we might see one or two manufacturers running short of supplies."

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